Bene merenti: an epigraphic display of social identity and expectational difference between Roman freeborn and freed women
The overall concern of this thesis is to examine the difference in social identity and its formation processes and the expectations placed upon free-born and freed Roman women within specific roles using epigraphic evidence and the parameter of the epithet bene merenti meaning "well-deserving" and/or "meritorious." In the current investigation of epitaphs coupled with the epithet, it became apparent that birth status and family relationships, particularly in relation to men, were of some considerable relevance in the choice to use bene merenti to describe the deceased and its intended meaning. After analyzing 6,000 epitaphs, it was found that more free-born women were assigned the epithet bene merenti than their freed counterparts. The results of this study suggest a subtle division between free-born and freed women's social statuses and categorization by role-based identities. All of the female epitaphs examined focused upon the woman's role within the familia and household, defining the deceased's existence based on her role as wife and mother. The disparity in bene merenti's usage lends itself to the conclusion that it was paramount for a free-born woman to fulfill traditional Roman roles and be identified as a "well-deserving" and "meritorious" wife and mother, even at times lending itself to highly impact their man's reputation and identity as paterfamilias, head of household, and competent political leader, more so than their freed counterparts. Concerning freed women, bene merenti suggests the continuation of an ambiguous state of social existence, because of a contrasting previous sexual identity resulting in their slave status with their newly granted freedom that expects, to the point of requirement, chasteness and sexual purity that comes only with respect and influence of social status. The decision to use bene merenti in describing Roman women alludes to its extension beyond that of simple funerary formula to a meaningful social analysis of identity, role fulfillment, and expectations of gender.