The ‘She’ Between the Lines: Finding Roman Women in Ancient Texts

Issabella Orlando is a Toronto-born, London-based Ancient History student. She has always been an avid writer, fascinated by antiquity, travel and world issues. Inspired by the ancient past, she hopes to use her background in classical studies as a foundation of insight from which she can better understand social, cultural and political issues within the modern world, develop a greater appreciation for the destinations of her adventures around the globe, and write her own works addressing the interconnectivity of her three loves.

I think one of the most remarkable things about classics is its tendency to lead those who study it to more attentively analyse the current world; as we compare the society in which we live to the ancient one, known to us only through fragmentary evidence, we grow to better understand them both by way of their similarities and differences. In some cases, the ancient world leads by example; in others, it illuminates valuable lessons that may help guide us to avoid repeating ancient mistakes.

One of the most profound faults I have noticed in my own studies of classics has been the misrepresentation of women in the ancient narrative. The study of gender in antiquity is its own kettle of fish; the place of women in the ancient world has been an ongoing topic of discussion in the field of classics for generations, and for good reason. It can be puzzling to try to understand where women fit into the jigsaw of ancient society when the only points of reference available are biased or fragmentary. I found a recent lecture especially thought-provoking; the talk focused mainly on Roman women, and the difficulty faced in reconstructing an image of them based solely on ancient texts written by, and for, men. While I won’t get into the particulars, I feel that there is great value in transcribing some of the key themes in a way that is accessible to readers unlike myself, who don’t study classics full time. I am adamant, in this piece and in future, to utilise and present the classical world as an eternally relevant lens through which our own society can, and should, be viewed and corrected.

With that said, I can now turn to the ancient Roman texts that sparked the inspiration for this feature in the first place. First and foremost, when reading written works from the Roman period in search of female figures, it is instantly apparent that they are incredibly outnumbered. Those who made their way into written sources were women of a rare kind: those who managed to somehow enter the sphere of public life. However even in the circumstances in which female figures come up in Roman writings, it is crucial to remember that these texts were usually political in nature, authored by men intending to aid their male associates; and so the female characters in these stories serve the same purpose. They are seldom given individualistic identities or attributed to their own exceptional words or actions; instead, they hold up a mirror to the men with whom they were associated. This can be seen time and time again, from the female characters of Livy’s foundation myths to the funerary inscriptions ruling class men erected for their wives; in either case, authors use female figures as literary pawns as they praise them according to a generalised, predetermined criteria of ideals and traditional values. While presenting a woman as eternally loyal, virtuous and respectable may seem a glorious way to honour her, the literary tradition rarely leaves space to address the particular qualities that distinctly made her who she was, because the texts are seldom intended to preserve her own identity. Rather, women in ancient writings are merely placeholders, hollow shells of the women they are meant to represent; they are figures who do little more than reflect the proper breeding accomplished by their fathers and husbands. With this in mind, we face a great challenge in investigating whether or not an accurate depiction of ‘she’ can be found in ancient Roman texts, whomever ‘she’ may be. So many questions about the perspectives of Roman women and their truthful place in society or in the family have yet to be answered. In this ongoing search for authenticity lies the problem of reconstructing a history of women based on male dominated narratives; here, they are used strictly for ulterior motives, and the simple fact remains that it is methodologically dangerous to rely on ancient texts for an accurate depiction of women.

Essentially, it is hard work to construct an accurate image of women in antiquity — but despite requiring a little more digging, it is vital that in the field of classics, we don’t shy away from this undertaking. We absolutely must be up to the task of reading between the lines, trying to search for an element of ‘she’ that we cannot construct history without. This notion of excavating and continuing to add to an ongoing female story is doubtlessly still relevant; regardless of how invested we are in the ancient past, we are all undeniably connected to the narrative of women that has accumulated over the centuries. In recent decades, we have become its main characters as well as its authors; and for this reason, we each have a responsibility, for the sake of the women before us and for those who will read about us in the years to come, to contribute to the crafting of a story we are proud to tell. So aptly put by Professor Mary Beard, an icon as both a classicist and a feminist: ‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already codes as male; you have to change the structure’.

Read More: In her recent work, Women and Power, classicist Mary Beard discusses the voice of women in modern society and the ancient roots of the tactics that silence them, some of which still underly our contemporary world. Easily understood yet strikingly profound, and truly reflective of the connection between past and present, this manifesto is for every kind of woman, and for all those concerned with hearing the female voice ring loud and clear.

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