Finding out about: Ancient Women

Interested in learning more about women in the ancient world? Chloe (Stage 3 Ancient History) gives some advice on where to start!

When first learning about ancient Greece and Rome, what becomes immediately and increasingly visible is the absence and silence of women within the pages of Greco-Roman history. The overwhelming majority of our literary sources for the classical world are written by, and for, elite men – and it can therefore feel rather difficult and hopeless trying to navigate and uncover a female perspective. However, just beneath this surface, the voices of women are visible – and this post will hopefully help guide you to the many different ways you can find out more about ancient women!

Myth retellings are a perfect place to start when learning about women in Greek and Roman mythology, whether hearing the exploits of powerful goddesses like Aphrodite, Artemis and Hera, or getting a glimpse into more everyday mortal lives. The last decade has seen a flourish of new books centred around giving women from mythology a voice, such as the works of Natalie Haynes, Jennifer Saint, Bettany Hughes and Pat Barker. While these novels are obviously written as fiction, many are based in the equally fictional and poetic world of the epic cycle,  and provide an updated perspective on well-known women like Andromache, Hecuba, Cassandra, Briseis, Helen, and Penelope. Our favourite myth retellings that are brilliant for beginners include: A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes, and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Bettany Hughes meanwhile has focused on the incredible mythological life of Helen of Troy, providing a much needed empowered perspective to this figure who faced immense sexism, both in antiquity and in modern commentaries. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper is one of the most compelling recent novels that navigates the complex lives of women in one of Pompeii’s brothels. The protagonist Amara is an enslaved Greek woman sold into sex-work, and the deeply moving storyline follows her journey and friendships with the lives of the other women in the Wolf Den. While the narrative is fictional, the details of Pompeii and of the experiences of prostitutes are exceptionally reconstructed, well-researched and grounded in historical truth that ultimately elevate this piece to must-read novel.

Arguably the best way to learn about ancient women is to read and absorb their surviving words, fragments and poems. Unfortunately, only about fifty-five works from ancient female writers and poets survive today, comprehensively compiled in a fabulous sourcebook by I M Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. While most people have heard of Sappho, and read her intoxicatingly beautiful love songs, there are a breadth of forgotten Greco-Roman women with equally intricate prose, including Erinna, Corinna, Praxilla, Nossis, and Antye. One of my favourite female poets is Sulpicia, who is the only surviving Latin love elegist. Her short cycle of six poems depicts a truthful picture of a young woman navigating her relationship with Cerinthus, and details the feelings of betrayal, heartache and fervent passion that accompany a love affair. If you want to read non-erotic prose, then Erinna’s poetry is perfect in illuminating the domestic and social role of women. Her poem ‘The Distaff’ provides an intimate picture of female friendship, as the poetic voice laments her recently deceased friend and illuminates the significance of marriage in the female world, and how this also signifies departure, absence and grief for the friends left behind. Routledge will soon publish a new sourcebook on Ancient Women Writers of Greece and Rome – an up-to-date collection with modern translations and commentaries, which is perfect for learning about an array of Greco-Roman women writers. If you are a university or college student, you can ask your University Library to acquire a digital or hard copy of it – both to save you some money and also to contribute to the continued study of ancient women that other students may have originally overlooked. To read excerpts and poems for free, there are lots of useful websites with translations online such as the Perseus Digital Library.

In recent years, many classicists and historians have tackled the reconstruction of the identities of powerful female figures from ancient history, particularly the Julio-Claudian women. The seemingly power-hungry and manipulative women of the early Roman empire have captured much attention: Emma Southon’s book Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore explores the extraordinary life of Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. This biography is not only excellently written and researched, but also brings to life the incredible figure of Agrippa, detailing her journey to becoming the most powerful woman in Rome. Another excellent biography by Annelise Freisenbruch The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind The Caesars unveils the incredible lives of Rome’s Empresses from Livia to Galla Placidia. It is perfect for gaining a wider grasp of elite women in the Roman Empire, and understanding the immense private power of the empresses. More interested in fierce mythological women? The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor brings to life the stories of the warrior women of the Amazons. Mayor explores the potential historical truth behind these myths, ultimately illuminating how battle-trained female warriors could have existed in the ancient world.

But women from the lower strata of society are still, arguably, silenced. Scholars have started to research the lives of working women in brilliant articles such as Brocks ‘The Labour of Women in Classical Athens’ which convincingly argues for the large presence of women in the public workforce. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant’s sourcebook, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, collates a wide range of evidence types together exploring women’s roles in areas like religion and medicine, as well as laws relating to women, and different accounts of women’s behaviour in public and in private. Selections from it are accessible on the Diotima website – which also has a wealth of amazing resources on women and gender in the ancient world. For one of the best overviews of ancient women from all social backgrounds, from prehistory to the end of the Roman empire, Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Wives, Whores and Slaves is hard to beat. Though it was published nearly four decades ago, it marks a clear turning point in the study of ancient women – and its focus on the lived day-to-day experiences of all women is still essential today.

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