“. . . but Roman women rule the Romans”


Femina gladiatrix?  Femina medica?

Historians typically ascribe household or family roles to women of ancient Rome or ignore them altogether. Accounts of male emperors, male military leaders, male scholars, and male religious leaders traditionally shape the history of the Roman Empire.

However, by carefully scouring standard classical texts like Livy, Tacitus, and Cicero and sifting through archaeological records of inscriptions on tombstones, statues, and buildings, Washington State University history professor Kathryn Meyer and science fiction writer and former WSU librarian Mary Jane Engh have found examples of female counterparts to all those male leaders, as well as women in a host of other public and business positions.

“Roman women were not just good moms,” says Meyer. “They were out in the world to a much greater extent than generally believed. They were involved in religion, business, and the trades. Some wealthier women owned brick manufacturing operations and dye works. And women worked at all levels of these operations as well. They were dancers, musicians, mimes, actresses, and doctors. They were also criminals, thieves, prostitutes, and a few were murderers.”

Meyer and Engh are collecting their notes into a multi-volume work they have tentatively titled, Femina Habilis: Biographical Dictionary of Active Women in the Roman World from Earliest Times to 500 CE. Entries vary from terse inscriptions to longer biographies of women from throughout the Roman Empire. “Many records were found for women in Roman Egypt,” says Engh, “probably because the records were recorded on papyrus, which is very durable. Archaeologists have found mentions in contracts and wills that were preserved by chance as mummy wrappings. Many records were found in ancient garbage dumps and houses and recovered in archaeological digs.” More than a thousand inscriptions are still found and reported every year, and Meyer and Engh review them all for items about women. The earliest entries in their listing come from 500-700 BCE, when Rome was still just a city-state.

Most Roman women who were publicly active held religious positions. In the Christian era, many women were deaconesses, a number were priests, and there are records of two who were bishops. Many women were priestesses in non-Christian religions or served as functionaries such as fennel bearers for holy rites. Girls could become priestesses as early as age 8, but some were as old as 80. They might be temporary volunteers or could perform their duties for many years. In at least one instance in Asia Minor, now Turkey, women became the founders of a Christian sect. Prisca and Maximilla, two female prophets from Phyrygia [Phrygia?], called their purist, charismatic movement New Prophecy or Montanism. Although denounced by the Catholic Church, the movement persisted for more than 100 years.

Meyer and Engh have found more than 200 women who held political offices, many in Asia Minor. Some became influential in government and official positions because they were wives or daughters of prominent men; as Cato the Younger noted, “Rome may rule the world, but Roman women rule the Romans.” Others were elected or appointed to positions. Galla Placidia, who lived in the first half of the fifth century CE, was the daughter of Roman emperor Theodosius the Great. She had been captured by the Visigoths and was briefly married to their king, Ataulf, before being returned to the imperial court at Ravenna. A few years later, she ruled the Western Roman Empire in her son’s name. She died in 450 CE.

In a section on law, the authors present examples that counter the common belief that women could not testify in court. In a section on literature and education, they showcase women who were writers and teachers. “Girls did receive an education,” notes Meyer. “More often, if they were the children of wealthy families, but even middle-class families would hire tutors for their daughters. In the later years of the Empire, education was more frequently supported by the state.”

Many women assumed roles in medical fields; most were midwifes and nursemaids, but there were also trained female doctors.

Wealthy women who set up funds to supply food to children are included in a section on philanthropy. Another humanitarian, Busa, fed and clothed 10,000 men who had served in the battle of Cannae in Southeast Italy. This battle against Hannibal ended in a defeat for Rome in 216 BCE.

The most famous woman in a section on philosophy and science is Hypatia, a mathematician and Neoplatonic philosopher. Hypatia was lynched in Alexandria, Egypt, in 415 CE by a Christian mob who resented the growing numbers of her followers and her influence with the city’s prefect.

Some were military leaders. Fulvia, the third wife of Marc Antony, was a powerful personality in the first century BCE. She, with Antony’s brother, raised an army and minted coinage to support it, and Fulvia herself was reported to have issued military orders. Cleopatra is also included in the book as a queen of another country who led armies against Rome. The same is true of Mavia, queen of the Saracens, who led an Arab army to assist Rome in their defense [offensive?] against Constantinople. As a reward, Mavia requested and was sent a Christian bishop. The story of Teuta, renowned as the pirate queen of Illyria, a northern Adriatic country, is also recounted. When her husband died nullifying a treaty with Rome, Teuta declared open season on Roman shipping and, for a time, piracy was a mainstay of the Illyrian economy. Rome soon mounted an army against Teuta’s Illyrian forces, which were defeated.

In a sporting and entertainment group are found gladiators, two of whom were Amazon and Achillia. The remains of another female gladiator were found in a London archaeology dig this past year. Women were also actresses and musicians. Some were organists in the orchestras that played in the same arena with the gladiators.

“The sheer volume of women we have collected in Femina Habilis will result in a general re-evaluation of the role of women in the Roman world,” observes Meyer. “None of it is new, except for new evidence from archaeological excavations. It is just that women’s roles were pushed aside as insignificant. Our dictionary will show that women were a significant part of the Roman world. Traditional Roman history is about men. Conventional wisdom is wrong; a tremendous role was played by women in Roman society, and there are mountains of evidence.”

When it is complete, Meyer and Engh expect to publish their illustrated work on CD-ROM and print an abridged, one-volume version for classroom use.