LEGAL STATUS OF WOMEN IN ANCIENT ROME
Equality was a foreign concept in the Roman mind. Citizen and non-citizen, freeborn, freed and slave, father and children, male and female---each had a different standing in law. Adultery by a low class women was not considered a problem, while it was a serious crime by all other women. Children by parents of differing classes acquired the legal standing of the lower class parent. A slave might be given her freedom, but she would then become a freed woman, not a freeborn woman.
The traditional idea was to center control of all of the assets of a family in the hands of one person. We have noted elsewhere that throughout the ancient world the group was more important than the individual. Family members were expected to work for the entire family, not for themselves. The best way to achieve this unity of effort, it was believed, was to give authority over every aspect of life, not just economic, to one person in the family. That one person was called pater familias. The control of the paterfamilias was absolute in law, but in practice was much more benevolent than it sounds and was usually confined to economic matters. (Choice of a spouse for a daughter was one such economic matter.)
A paterfamilias was any man, married or unmarried, with or without children, who did not owe obedience to a paterfamilias of his own (ie., a father, grandfather, etc.). A mater familias was any married or widowed woman (with or without children). At marriage, a woman in the Republic went from the authority of her father, or his paterfamilias, to the authority of her husband, or his paterfamilias.
Adultery in Rome, as elsewhere in the Ancient World, was defined as sexual activity between a married woman and a man not her husband. If a married man strayed it might have created a problem with his wife, but it was not a matter for the state unless his extracurricular partner was married to someone else. In the Republic a husband might kill his wife if he caught her committing adultery; he was certainly required to divorce her.
The invasion of Italy by the Carthaginians under Hannibal and many years of foreign wars led to a number of social changes in the final century or two of the Republic, particularly in the attitudes toward women. Many women were forced to manage the family estate or business while their husbands were away at war. Battles kept many husbands away, but victories brought new wealth to Rome and some of that wealth ended up in dowries that passed to widows. The result was to give women greater prominence and more authority in practice if not in theory. Many leading citizens spoke against the new status of women, but the forces of change were too great.
One very important change was the growing popularity in the last century of the Republic and throughout the Empire of a form of marriage which did not place a wife under the authority of her husband. She remained under the authority of her family, but that was often more benevolent, and certainly more distant. Upper class women were often able to achieve release from family control and then hire an agent to manage their finances: of course, the hired agent simply did as he was instructed. Women had more money and more freedom and so had the opportunity to meet other men. One critic claimed that the only chaste women in Rome were the ones who had not been chased. Another said that husbands were just being silly if they got upset about a little adultery.
Once Augustus has established the Empire he became concerned about what he saw as the bad example being set by the upper classes for the rest of the country. Lower moral standards, a reduced birth rate and weakened family values were leading people to be more interested in personal pleasure and less interested in their duty to the community. Augustus' reforms were not popular and it is doubtful they had much impact. It is ironic that his own daughter, Julia, was caught in adultery and exiled. (See The Augustan Reformation)