Earlier today I noticed the British Museum tweet a link to this blog post by Mary Beard containing a list of powerful women of the classical world. I was surprisingly unimpressed. On the one hand, of course, Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. She knows far more about this stuff than I do. On the other hand, I suspect that I know more about editing a newspaper than George Osborne does, so I’m going to have a go at being a Classics professor too. First up, here are the women Professor Beard picked.
- Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons
- A Vestal Virgin
- An anonymous Roman woman
I think that Penthesilea is an excellent pick. What caused my eyebrows to rise was Beard saying of the Amazons, “They were entirely mythical, of course.” There’s no known historical people that called themselves Amazons, but we have plenty of evidence from burials that women warriors were commonplace around the Black Sea — the area where the Greeks claimed that the Amazons lived. Herodotus says that descendants of the legendary Amazons lived in the area in his day, and the most likely suspects are a people known as the Sarmatians. One possible derivation of their name means, “ruled by women”, and they certainly had women warriors. An all female nation is, I think, entirely unlikely, but an all-female war band such as the one that Penthesilea led to the defense of Troy is entirely possible.
Of course if one is looking at the Trojan War one might have picked Clytemnestra who ruled Mycenae for 10 years while the men were away besieging Troy and who murdered her feckless husband, Agamemnon, when he returned home so that she could carry on doing so. Or there is Helen, who was so beautiful that no man could resist her. Both exercised tremendous power in their their ways. You could also pick Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who fell in love with Aeneas when he stopped in her city on his way to found Rome.
The Vestal Virgins certainly had an important role in Roman society, and being a Vestal must have been an attractive career prospect for a high class Roman girl. How much actual power they had, however, is open to question. Whenever things went bad for the Romans they were in the habit of accusing the Vestals of not being virginal enough and sacrificing them by burying them alive.
Roman women were somewhat downtrodden, though by no means as much as Athenian women. By the time of the empire, however, their lot had improved. Part of the reason for that was that the incessant warfare produced a lot of rich widows (Roman women could own property) with extensive business experience who could work their way around social restrictions. Tansy Rayner Roberts is far better placed to pick powerful women from the empire, having done her PhD on the subject, but I’m going to pick Livia Drusilla who, as wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius exerted significant influence over the founding of imperial Rome.
I’m a big fan of Athena, but she is very much a Greek man’s view of the ideal woman, being divorced from all things feminine. She doesn’t even have a mother. If I was going to pick a goddess I might have gone for Artemis/Diana who made more use of her martial talents and was at least seen as sexual (not that I have anything against being asexual, but I am suspicious of virgin goddesses created by men).
The other option, of course, is Cybele who, despite being viewed as deeply suspect by the male rulers of both Greece and Rome, and not being part of the Olympian pantheon, managed to become hugely popular in both civilizations.
That brings us back to religion and Roman trans women. It is by no means certain exactly how Elagabalus identified, but Cassius Dio might have reported faithfully. If that was so then we can list Elagabalus as the only woman to have been emperor of Rome.
That’s hugely speculative, but there’s no doubt that the cult of Cybele, or Magna Mater as the Romans called her, was very important in Rome. Their main temple was on the Palatine hill, and her spring festival was a big deal. The Archigallus, the head of the order, was a trans woman and a very important person in Roman society.
Back with emperors for a moment, Beard says in her book, SPQR, that she deems the reign of Caracalla as the end of Rome. After that it becomes something very different and rather un-Roman. However, the empire did continue for a long time after that. In terms of powerful women, you should not be looking any further that the Empress Theodora of Byzantium.
Cleopatra is another good choice, but she’s by no means the only foreign queen to have worried the Romans. Boudica’s rebellion was brief and ineffectual, but Cartimandua was much smarter and more powerful. By negotiating with the Romans she kept her position as Queen of the Brigantes, one of the largest of the British tribes, for 18 years after the conquest.
Pride of place in Beard’s list should, however, have gone to Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra. When her husband was assassinated in 270 she launched a war against Rome which built an empire covering central Turkey, Syria, the Levant, all of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Sadly the Romans eventually managed to beat her, but frankly she makes Boudica look like a rank amateur.
It is worth noting, by the way, that one of the most famous women during classical times was Semiramis, the legendary Queen of Assyria. Sadly she is only legendary, though Shammuramat did rule the Neo-Assyrian Empire as regent for five years. She was, however, a major bogeywoman in Roman history.
I do like the choice of an anonymous Roman woman. I’m a bit dubious about choosing one who is flashing her boobs on her tombstone. However, as Beard points out, the fact that she is portrayed as Venus shows that she was seem as a goddess by her family, and that’s good enough for me.
There are many other options, of course. There are women who, despite the misogyny of the time, managed to forge a career in male-dominated professions. The poet, Sappho, is the most famous, but you could also pick the Athenian doctor, Agnodice, or Hortensia who because a politician in the late republic. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is arguably the world’s first archaeologist. I’m sure that Professor Beard is well aware of all of these women.