Monsters, Mothers, Mulieres: A Reading List on The Women of Classical Antiquity

Five stories of ambitious empresses, fearsome gladiators, and ordinary working-class residents — glimmering snapshots of the female experience in the classical world.

By Rachel Ashcroft

History is supposedly written by the victors. It is certainly written by the people who were taught basic literacy skills. In Ancient Greek and Roman society, this means men recorded almost everything we know about classical antiquity. Men like Herodotus and Livy wrote the history books, while men such as Julius Caesar recorded their military campaigns. Men also wrote the law, literature, letters, speeches, and often the tombstones of the time. 

Greek and Roman women were considered to be inferior. They were barred from voting and public office, while most women (Sparta being a notable exception) did not receive an education. Their activities were largely confined to the domestic sphere. These barriers prevented many women from writing down their thoughts and observations. 

This poses a problem when we want to study the lives of ancient women. As historian Bonnie MacLachlan wrote in Women in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook, we face numerous challenges when we “seek to listen for the female voice, to get access to what mattered for women and girls.” With a few exceptions (poets like Nossis and Sulpicia come to mind), ancient women’s voices are almost impossible to come by. 

Instead, we learn about women’s role in society from male sources. Sorting objective facts from biased reportage can be a frustrating task, especially given that such men grew up in cultures that constantly reinforced their superiority over women. Greek and Roman mythology was particularly effective in this respect. Female figures like Medusa acted as warnings to society about the monstrous nature of women. Myths about ill-fated women like Medea helped to reinforce real-life female subservience to the patriarchy by highlighting the disastrous consequences of female independence.

However, since the 1970s, historians have been unpacking evidence about the lives of real ancient women. After all, women living in patriarchal societies have always found ways to exercise power. Wealthy women spent money on the tools that outwardly reinforced their upper-class status: jewelry, makeup, and expensive clothing. Natural beauty transcended rank and could help women to attract rich suitors, buy gifts, or wield influence over male lovers. Furthermore, upper-class women often had powerful male relatives they could potentially manipulate to their advantage. 

In ancient societies, where men were frequently off fighting in foreign lands, the women left behind held some sway. Between 218 and 129 B.C.E., the Roman Empire was at war with an enemy every year in at least one theater of conflict. Widows and orphans became so numerous that they attracted special consideration from the censors. There are also rare cases of women exerting political influence in public life. The Oracle at Delphi was Greece’s most authoritative seer, while the Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome held influence in the Senate. Such power came at a price, but it was power all the same.

Examining women’s history requires a great deal of sensitivity, as Jane F. Gardner writes in the book Women in Roman Law and Society, “what the law says people may do, as we must constantly remind ourselves, is not necessarily the same as what they actually do.”

*Related Read: Debra May Macleod discusses this issue in relation to the Vestal Virgins and the infamous “live burial” punishment some of them endured.

When we examine why inequality existed and how frequently it occurred, we must also explain it in relation to ancient historical and social contexts, rather than our own present-day assumptions.* That said, there is little doubt that Greek and Roman women were born into societies that heavily privileged males over females, and the resulting imbalance has led to a dearth of significant non-academic writing about the women of the time.

But there are exceptions. The pieces below describe ambitious empresses, fearsome gladiators, and ordinary working-class residents; all are glimmering snapshots of the female experience. While mythical monsters acted as warnings to women not to transgress society’s restrictive expectations of them as wives and mothers, some women still chose to bend the rules to their own advantage — or disregard them altogether.

Why So Many Mythological Monsters Are Female (Nora McGreevy, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2021)

Despite women’s inferior status in classical antiquity, female characters abound in mythology from this era. Helen of Troy is a well-known figure in Greek legend, as are powerful goddesses such as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Furthermore, many of antiquity’s most intriguing monsters are female too.

Myths are not just nice stories we tell each other to pass the time. They often reflect cultural ideals or fears about the behavior of our citizens. As Nora McGreevy observes, ancient myths help to explain the real-life prejudice suffered by Greek and Roman women: “Ancient male authors inscribed their fear of — and desire for — women into tales about monstrous females.” Medusa, for example, is a snake-haired demon who tricks men with her lethal gaze — a deadly symbol of female cunning, during a time when such stories were considered to be a quasi-historical reality.

Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters: Building A New Mythology, which McGreevy reviews in this piece, provides a highly useful basis for this discussion. Zimmerman’s essay collection illuminates the precise ways in which ancient monsters reinforced assumptions about the true nature of women. The article does well at highlighting lesser-known instances of monstrous women, such as the female Sphinx in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Many of the monsters mentioned, such as Scylla and Charybdis, often thwart men like Odysseus who are trying to achieve greatness. 

Particularly illuminating is Lamia, a monster with the upper body of a woman but the lower half of a snake who regularly steals and eats children. She and other female child-killers of lore served as a warning to women: Subvert your role as a nurturing mother or wife, and pay the price. 

Women are expected to care for children, but society remains constantly worried [they] are going to fail in their obligation to be mothers and to be nurturers,” Zimmerman says. If a woman rejects motherhood, expresses ambivalence about motherhood, loves her child too much or loves them too little, all of these acts are perceived as violations, albeit to varying degrees.

To deviate in any way from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made a monster, a destroyer of children,” Zimmerman writes.

Gossip Was A Powerful Tool For The Powerless In Ancient Greece (Fiona McHardy, Aeon, February 2019)

Ancient Greece was divided into a vast number of kingdoms and city-states. With a few exceptions, most Greek women were second-class citizens who had to find subtle ways to wield what little power they could in society. 

This was easier for wealthy women, who possessed money and powerful male relatives. As Fiona McHardy points out, those with the least rights and resources were generally “low-status women without strong family connections.” However, McHardy argues that gossip was one tool such women could feasibly rely on when they wanted to exact revenge on someone. And revenge was a popular pursuit in Ancient Greek society. 

One example involves Zobia, a non-Greek resident who helps a man named Aristogeiton. He repays her kindness with physical abuse and threats to sell Zobia into slavery. Zobia embarks on a campaign of gossip which is so effective “that his reputation as untrustworthy and abusive spread through the city.” This gossip was then successfully used in court by a male litigant as proof of Aristogeiton’s poor character.

Despite being a woman, and a non-Greek one at that, Zobia’s example shows that justice was possible even for women who didn’t have straightforward resources at their disposal. McHardy’s essay is an excellent example of the type of academic work that women scholars have been carrying out for decades. Through careful analysis of the written evidence from this period, McHardy shows that it is perfectly possible to find instances of everyday female agency.

Athenians were well-aware of the calculated use of gossip to launch attacks on their enemies, and they made careful use of gossip in rhetoric to cast aspersions about their opponents in the law courts. The presence in legal cases of women’s gossip, including gossip spread by low-status members of society, demonstrates that the Athenians did not discriminate about the source, but took advantage of all kinds of gossip in their attempts to defeat their adversaries. Through calculated use of gossip, women, non-citizens or slaves with no access to official legal channels wielded a potent weapon in their attempts to attain revenge against those who wronged them.

Reading Between The Lines: Women On Roman Tomb Monuments (Francis Grew, Museum of London, June 2020)

Alongside written sources, archaeological evidence provides a fascinating window into the past. It allows us to reach out and touch the everyday objects that ancient people interacted with, even to walk the same streets as them.

Tombstones are a common archaeological find. In London, scholars have uncovered a surprising number of women’s graves from Roman Britain. It’s exciting, but also frustrating. Why? As Francis Grew demonstrates, trying to establish basic facts about these women from the commemorations written by male relatives is by no means simple. 

This is because men often used such tombstones to enhance their own reputation. A typical example involves Claudia Martina, a Roman citizen whose husband Anencletus was a former slave. It’s likely that he was partly motivated to celebrate his “most dutiful wife” in glowing terms due to the prominence her Roman citizenship conferred on him. 

It’s tempting to feel disappointment at the idea that even in death, women’s lives and experiences were being manipulated by men. But Grew’s research is exciting because it shows that occasionally, women could play the same games as men. The tomb of procurator Julius Classicianus features unusually large lettering reading U X O R, or “wife.” Julius’ wife was Julia Pacata, the daughter of a great French chieftain who aided the Romans in battle. It’s likely that she commissioned the tombstone in full awareness of how her family had contributed to her husband’s career. “In Julia,” Grew writes, “perhaps, we, at last, find a woman speaking in her own voice.”

There is often an uncomfortable ambiguity about funerals and funerary monuments. They can be more about the living than the dead, a chance to showcase a familys achievements to a captive audience. This could be the case with the dedications to women from Roman London. None of them came from an ordinaryfamily, each had something exceptional to celebrate.

Take Grata (the Latin equivalent of Graceor maybe Cheryl). Her fathers name – ‘Dagobitus’ – betrays the fact that she was of British heritage, almost certainly born here. To commission a gravestone in proper Roman style, with good syntax and phraseology, was proof that her family had made itin Londinium.

Roman Empress Agrippina Was A Master Strategist. She Paid The Price For It. (Isabel Barceló, National Geographic, March 2021)

What about the women of whom we know plenty? They were often the female relatives of emperors and generals. Women like Livia Drusilla, married to Augustus, or Valeria Messalina, Claudius’ third wife. Although these women were barred from holding public office, they exploited family connections to enhance their own position.  

Agrippina the Younger was sister to an emperor, wife of an emperor, and eventually the mother of an emperor as well: Nero was her son from her first marriage. Her main asset was her family heritage. She was highly aware of how advantageous her imperial ancestry was to male suitors. She used these attributes to secure a third marriage to her uncle Claudius. Once empress, she worked tirelessly to ensure her beloved Nero would inherit the imperial throne. 

Agrippina wasn’t shy about wielding her own power either. She established close links with the Senate and advised her husband on imperial matters. As Barceló writes, she took the title Augusta and would often appear standing next to the emperor in public — an unprecedented show of power. Indeed, we gain an excellent sense of Agrippina’s ambition throughout this piece. Barceló expertly narrates how Agrippina pushed the boundaries that her position as a woman entailed. It’s a fascinating portrait of Ancient Roman matriarchal power used to its full potential.

We know that Agrippina could write, but sadly her own diaries have been lost. Secondhand accounts of her life were shaped by male authors’ vested interests: Tacitus depicts Agrippina as a temptress tricking her uncle into marriage; others spread rumors about incest between Agrippina and Nero, or that she poisoned her second husband Crispus. The truth of these accounts is still unclear today. What we can’t deny is that Agrippina used all the resources her position afforded her to pursue an unbridled ambition. This wasn’t common for women in Ancient Rome, but it wasn’t impossible either.

Within a year of Nero becoming emperor, Agrippina was ordered to leave the imperial residence and relocated to an estate in Misenum. She had been cast out from the inner circle of power, but she was not safe from her son. Nero tried to drown her by sabotaging a boat, but she survived. Undeterred, Nero sent assassins to the villa where Agrippina had taken refuge and had her murdered there in A.D. 59. There were no funeral honours. To cover up the matricide, Nero and his advisers crafted a misogynistic cover story, attributing various crimes to her, according to Tacitus, that included, “[aiming] at a share of empire, and at inducing the praetorian cohorts to swear obedience to a woman, to the disgrace of the Senate and people.” Her reputation lay shattered, and her birthday would be classed as an inauspicious day.

Despite the innuendos and criticisms, begrudging respect for Agrippina was expressed by some Roman historians. Tacitus wrote: “This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. The prospect had not daunted her. When she asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!’”

Female Gladiators In Ancient Rome (Joshua J. Mark, World History, April 2018)

Few people are aware that women fought in the arenas, so Joshua J. Mark’s article provides a thrilling insight into the real-life female gladiators of Ancient Rome. Women from all social classes participated: “Women who chose a life in the arena – and it does seem this was a choice – may have been motivated by a desire for independence, a chance at fame, and financial rewards including remission of debt.” Such a choice came at a price: the women’s loss of respectability in wider society. 

Women’s participation didn’t mean that women and men were allowed to fight together, or even against one another (evidence shows that they trained separately and were kept apart by their tutors). However, the arena presented women with some form of independence. They chose their own path and often ended up being celebrated in the same way as their male counterparts. In one example, Mark examines the remnants of an ornate relief found in Bodrum, Turkey, showing two women reenacting the story of Achilles and Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen: “The women in the relief must have been popular performers to have merited the expense of the work.”

What’s refreshing about this article is its refusal to paint women gladiators as being motivated by a desire to rebel against the patriarchy. Rather than feeling tempted to analyze these unusual female figures through a 21st-century lens, Mark uses archaeological and literary evidence to bring these women and their varied motivations to life firmly within an Ancient Roman context. 

Women may have been considered second-class citizens by the patriarchy but this does not mean every woman accepted that status. Many high-born women were able to exert considerable control over their husbands, homes, and even at court. Juvenal, in the same book of his Satires noted above, makes clear exactly how powerful women could be, in fact, in controlling men who still believed they were the masters. In the case of female gladiators, it seems some women were not content even with that level of autonomy, however, and sought to control their own fate in the arena.

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Rachel is a freelance journalist who has written about arts and culture for The Economist, New Statesman, and more. She is currently based in Edinburgh. 

Editor: Carolyn Wells
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