Powerful Women of the Classical World

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
  • Athena
  • Cleopatra
  • 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.

4 thoughts on “Powerful Women of the Classical World

  1. I’d quite like to see Cassandra and Lavinia get a mention too. Great list. How about Servilia? Notable for stopping Cicero in full flow according to his own letters 🙂 I also think Clodia must have been fun at parties and how about Terentia who managed her own property and held everything together when Cicero was in exile? (Not so much fun at parties probably…)

  2. And how about Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, the first Roman politicians who (for whatever reason) tried to make life better for poor people and got murdered for it by a rampaging mob of old rich guys bravely standing up for their right to go on being rich? She must have done something right. She was also (IIRC) the first actual Roman woman to be commemorated with a statue in Rome.

  3. On the mythical nature of the Amazons, I’m with Beard, I’m afraid. Yes, there’s evidence of women being buried with weapons in the Black Sea area, but that’s not quite the same as evidence for warrior women. The question is why women were buried with weapons, and the answers to that question can only be speculation, and that speculation is all-too-often fuelled by a desire to demonstrate the ‘truth’ behind the Amazon myth, in the same way that every archaeological discovery from fifth or sixth century Cornwall is used to ‘prove’ the existence of King Arthur. I can imagine other reasons for the weapons in burials – perhaps they were of value to the women’s husbands? The Amazons of myth were a society that existed just beyond the known world, that did things differently from the Greeks, and there are many examples of this. There doesn’t need to be anything ‘real’ behind this, and even if there is, it need be no more than a Greek trader spotting a couple of women with swords, and from that a tale becomes massively elaborated. It’s a big leap from that to imagining that something like Penthesilea’s expedition might have been real, and given that I don’t believe that ancient Scythia was not a patriarchal society, like all other ancient societies, it’s not one I’m prepared to make.

    1. One of the things that doing LGBT+ history teaches you is that the standards of proof required for anything outside the assumption of cis-het-patriarchal universality is way higher than for anything that bolsters it.

      In this case we have large numbers of burials of women with weapons, some of whom have wounds that appear to have been suffered in combat. We also have a type of warfare in which women would have been at much less of a disadvantage. It doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to me to believe that these women were actually warriors. In contrast I find it hard to believe why a man would bury his weapons with his wife unless he thought she could make good use of them in the afterlife.

      Does this mean that I believe in a matriarchal society? Nope. But I do believe in a society where women warriors were accepted, and where women did sometimes take charge (as we know they did in Celtic Britain, and Palmyra). I also suspect that such a thing would have caused the misogynistic Greeks to start hyperventilating about how these men let themselves be ruled by women, with obvious results in myth.

      I also think that in such a society it would make a lot of sense to have separate war bands for the young men and young women, and that too would have set the Greeks off.

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