Women of Antiquity: How much can we really know?

Greetings to all my readers! I’m back from my study trip to Italy, and will be resuming regular posting shortly. To start off, I thought I’d post a slightly condensed version of a presentation I gave at the archaeological site of Ostia. The question I was answering had to do with what we can tell about the lives of women from the evidence found there, and what some of the problems with that evidence are.

If it can be difficult re-creating the everyday lives of Roman men, especially beyond those few individuals of whose lives and careers we have written accounts, then Roman women present an even greater challenge. Although women exist in literary texts and archaeological material (inscriptions, art, monuments, etc.) they are present in much smaller numbers than their male counterparts. That bias is evident in the ancient sources, but it also continues to show in modern scholarship, where research on women’s lives still occupy a marginal space. Russell Meiggs’ standard tome on Roman Ostia mentions women on three pages out of six hundred. And even where there is ancient source material to work with, the actual amount of knowledge about women’s lives that can be gleaned from it depends on a huge variety of factors.

Feminist ancient historian Suzanne Dixon emphasises the significance of genre and ideology when looking at any source for women’s history. [1] This basically boils down to the what, how and why of a text – be it an inscription on a tomb, a poem, or a historical narrative. A text’s genre determines what is represented, how it is represented, and what is not represented. The result of this is a text that projects an ideology to its reader – in the vast majority of cases, one of proper womanly behaviour in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.

What this means is that many of the sources we have for the lives of Roman women engage in a hegemonic pattern, where they not only reflect gendered social norms, but also actively participate in maintaining them. And just to make it a bit more confusing, we can’t just look at these sources in terms of gender alone: if you’re going to look at the role and status of women in Roman society, you also have to look at other factors, such as social class, which plays just as significant a role. This means that very different rules of behaviour apply for upper and lower class women, and also that lower class and slave women tend to be even more absent from sources. [2]

As such, the question of whether we can know anything about the actual lived experiences of Roman women is still being asked among historians and archaeologists working in this area today. For this presentation I’m looking at four examples from Ostia that highlight some of the problems with the evidence for this question. I’ll try to include translations of the inscriptions and include the images in this post so you can see the source for yourself.

Inscription of Iunia Libertas (AE 1940, 00094)

‘Iunia Libertas, daughter of Decimus, has given and ceded the rights she holds in them and the usufruct of the Hilarian Junian gardens and buildings and shops as defined by their own boundary wall to her freedmen and freedwomen and to those who have been or will have been manumitted by them or their descendents. None of them may sell, alienate or cede the usufruct of their share to anyone until the usufruct descends to a single individual, male or female. And if no-one from the familia has survived, then I wish that the ownership of the gardens, together with the buildings and the shops, as defined by their own boundary walls, to pass to the corporation of the colony of Ostia. From their profits I wish 100 sestertii on the day of violets, 100 sestertii on the day of roses. I want this wish of mine to be made public.

May the right vest in the first place in my freedmen and freedwomen and after them in their descendents.’ [3]

The purpose of this funeral inscription is to provide security for Iunia’s freedmen and freedwomen (read: slaves who have been freed) by leaving them her assets, and to make sure that they commemorate her appropriately at festivals for the dead. This was a pretty standard arrangement among patrons and freedmen. What does this inscription say about Iunia Libertas, though? Well, it tells us that she owned a significant portion of property, and seemed to do so in her own right. We know from other sources such as the house of Iulia Felix at Pompeii that women could indeed own and inherit property themselves. We know that she had a high position in a patronage network, that she was wealthy, and that her name (libertas = freedom) probably indicates that her family was a freedman family. But other than that, we know very little about Iunia’s personal or public life. The genre of this funerary inscription means that personal information wasn’t included in the text – we can only tell the basics of her wealth, legal status and possibly her family background. [4]

If we look at some other inscriptions mentioning women though, we find them even less useful.

Inscriptions from the Tomb of the Varii, Isola Sacra (IPOstie-A 00268)

‘Publius Varius Ampelus and Varia Ennuchis made (this monument) for themselves and for Varia Servanda, daughter of Publius, their patron, and for their freedmen and freedwomen and their descendents, on the condition that no sarcophagus be introduced into this monument. This tomb does not pass to the heir of an unknown family. (This tomb measures) ten feet and three-quarters across the front and thirty-three feet to the rear.’ [5]

All this tomb tells us about Varia Servanda is that she was a patron, and wealthy enough to have owned slaves. We could perhaps conjecture that she didn’t have close kin of her own, because of the emphasis placed on her freedmen. Although this is the tomb of a woman, the inscription tells us more about her freedmen, and their aspirations to advertise themselves as legitimate, free citizens establishing their own family, than about her. [6] The ideology of this tomb and its inscriptions emphasises class-based identity over individual identity, thus pushing Varia Servanda into a marginal space.

The Nurses Sarcophagus, Necropolis of Via Ostiense ( late C2nd or early C3rd AD)

sarcophagus relief

In terms of working women’s lives, we can turn to sources such as reliefs and monuments. The women in this scene are depicted with a baby, we don’t know what exactly their job is. Their clothing gives no indication of social status, and they could just be mythological figures such as nymphs. The rest of the scenes on the sarcophagus show scenes from the childhood of a man, represented via a mythologising tendency and stock educational scenes. Natalie Kampen argues that the main theme of the sarcophagus is not to accurately represent a the life of the deceased, but to participate in his heroisation after death. The sarcophagus subordinates the reality of childhood to a mythological childhood and coming of age. As a result, the women on the sarcophagus don’t necessarily tell us anything about actual women’s activities or work. [7]

Kampen identifies this as a trend among depictions of women’s work in particular:

‘All these monuments participate in an ideological system which sees active, working women as déclassé despite the external data from the worlds of household, learning, religion and business which daily contradicted the ideology… A veil of artistic silence covers the activities of women in the upper strata except to the extent that they conform to the aristocratic imagery of the matron or are rendered amusing or mythic.’ [8]

Relief with Sale of Vegetables from Ostia Episcopo (late C2nd AD)

ostia episcopo relief

In this relief, lower class women’s work is represented more literally than figuratively, and conveys a sense of pride. Her body language gives her agency in the relief and demands attention. Although her clothing and face aren’t particularly individualised, the detail of her produce and stall gives us a pretty accurate idea of what her job was, and it also fits into a whole genre of reliefs depicting lower-class work as a marker of identity and pride. [9] It hasn’t always been accepted that women were able to have jobs outside the household, but there are several other inscriptions that mention other women in similar jobs. [10]

Basically, these examples show that the sources we have for women’s lives don’t always tell us very much about women’s lives at all. Every source needs to be read in the context of Roman patriarchal and class-based  ideologies, and most sources are bound by the conventions of their genre. Nonetheless, I think it’s possible to catch glimpses of what women’s lives were like, if we keep all this in mind and dig deep into the material we have available for study. At the very least, we can start to understand the gendered social norms that influenced women’s roles and status in society.

[1] Dixon, S. 2001. Reading Roman Women, London: Duckworth

[2] Treggiari, S. 1976. ‘Jobs for Women,’ American Journal of Ancient History 1: 76-104.

[3] Dixon S. 1992. ‘A Woman of Substance. Iunia Libertas of Ostia,’ Helios 19:162.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hackworth Petersen, L. 2006. ‘Family and Community at the Isola Sacra Necropolis: The Tomb of the Varii,’ The Freedman in Art and Art History, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kampen, N. 1981. Image and Status: Roman Working Women in Ostia, Berlin: Mann

[8] Ibid., p. 131-132

[9] Ibid.

[10] Treggiari, S. 1976. ‘Jobs for Women,’ American Journal of Ancient History 1: 76-104

5 thoughts on “Women of Antiquity: How much can we really know?

  1. Hello. Thanks for this insightful article. I’m working on a speech or sermon about the resurrection of Jesus Christ which focuses on refuting claims that it did not occur and that the biblical account was concocted by someone. A point that I would like to present to my audience is the fact that the biblical account says that Mary and Martha, two working class Jewish women, were the first to seen the risen Christ. Im trying to find literature that shows how unlikely it would be for anyone in the first century because of their views about gender roles to invent any story which would allow working class women to have that honor and prominent position. I think I might find some help in “Women of Antiquity”.

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