BMCR 2022.03.06

Women and society in the Roman world: a sourcebook of inscriptions from the Roman west

, Women and society in the Roman world: a sourcebook of inscriptions from the Roman west. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xxi, 345. ISBN 9781107142459. $130.00.


Professor Emily Hemelrijk’s fascination with women living in the Roman West from the late republican to early imperial period is a consistent focus of her many publications since the last decades of the 20th century.[1] Importantly, whether the subject of her writing has been a particular type of woman in ancient Roman society (priestesses of the imperial cult, for example, or patronesses and ‘mothers’ of Roman collegia) or broader categories of female participation in the civic sphere of the Latin West (public roles for women in Rome’s Italian and provincial cities, their education, munificence, or daily life), her abiding interest rests firmly on whatever evidence can be derived from the surviving textual and pictorial sources. In this regard, the epigraphic record has provided essential data in support of Hemelrijk’s particular and thematic studies. The volume under review reflects the author’s close attention over the years to the corpora of inscriptions that, in her words, “allow us a glimpse of the lives of groups of women who remain largely invisible in the literary sources: women of the upper and middle classes in Italian and provincial towns, freedwomen, and even some household slaves” (p.2). The aim of her sourcebook underscores this evaluation of epigraphy’s worth, namely, as a selective survey of what inscriptions can tell us about women in the Roman world, their social and family relations, legal standing, employment, religious positions, public undertakings, movements through geographic and civic spaces, and how these may be interpreted within their socio-cultural, historical, and material contexts.

Intended as the first of two companion volumes aimed at non-specialist audiences covering Italy and the Latin-speaking provinces of the Roman West (Hemelrijk) and the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (Riet van Bremen), Women and society in the Roman world provides a carefully curated, critically annotated catalogue of inscriptions dating from the first century BCE to the late third century CE. Organised thematically into seven chapters, each divided into roughly chronological sections and introduced briefly according to the various topics that comprise the overarching theme, the volume presents a representative sample of epigraphic texts carved in stone or bronze, incised in or stamped on lead and other metals, painted or otherwise marked on walls and objects, even on wooden tablets.

Following a brief preface, the volume introduces its readers to the socio-historical and cultural phenomenon of epigraphic culture in Graeco-Roman antiquity and then unpacks the methodological rationale informing – as well as the evidentiary limitations adhering to – the study of women’s lives through inscriptions. A crisp, methodical overview of the book’s thematic and technical organisation – the latter including a summary of relevant conventions applied in each chapter (numbering, chronology, find-spots, translations into English, erasures, missing words, uncertain readings, standardised names of towns, transliterations of Greek terms, personal names, and social designations) – completes the introduction.

Chapter 1 examines the roles of women within the family and household: as wives, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, siblings and other relations, and in foster- and stepfamilies. The subject of family life allows Hemelrijk to identify those praiseworthy virtues associated with women traditionally and – if one has more than a casual acquaintance with the epigraphic texts that memorialise women or which record the commission or composition of inscriptions by or for women – repetitively included in formal epigraphic texts. She is careful to illustrate the breadth of terminology through which the almost exclusively funerary inscriptions express and amplify idealised aspects of women’s personal character (modestia, castitas, pudicitia, frugalitas, obsequium, pietas), traditional designations of acceptable female behaviour (concordia, diligentia, industria, fides, religiosa), and respectable roles within the family (lanificium, matrona, unicuba, univira). Whenever relevant, Hemelrijk records the discursive cues of visual media (in the main, sculptural and relief art) often appearing in relation to these epigraphic texts which reflect and reinforce the ideological and sociological messages transmitted through the inscriptions.

Chapter 2 surveys the information that inscriptions provide about the legal status, citizenship and ethnicity of female slaves, freedwomen, and women of non-Roman background. Organised according to geographical location – Rome and Italy (section I); northern and western provinces (section II) –, this chapter demonstrates the value of studying epigraphy to reflect on the ways that women occupying a marginal position in Roman society identified and displayed what was important to them. Throughout, Hemelrijk’s selection of inscriptions captures how female slaves and freedwomen participated in and contributed to Rome’s epigraphic culture to record the worth of their lives and achievements – in spite of, or, in some cases, because of their enslaved or manumitted status and/or their origins in the periphery of Rome’s expanding empire.

Chapter 3 illustrates the range of occupations in which women living in Roman cities were employed. Of particular interest is the fact that inscriptions attest that female participation in professional, artisanal, and mercantile activities did not always conform to the social limitations imposed by gender. In addition to those occupations associated with women (hairdressers, midwives, sex-workers, wet nurses), the epigraphic record identifies a miscellany of general female vocations: physicians; educators and paedagogues; craftswomen, shopkeepers, and merchants; entertainers and bar personnel; landowners and managers of brick production; moneylenders, creditors and borrowers. As always with evidence like this, the limitations of survival mitigate against any clarity with respect to the true extent of women’s engagement in work and trade; as, too, in relation to the idealised portrait in inscriptions of the freeborn female, it is difficult to unpick the possibility of women employed in skilled or unskilled labour other than those who were enslaved or freed but still dependent.

Chapter 4 charts the epigraphic representation of women’s affective life, their socially prescribed or customary relationships, and the degree to which they travelled, either temporarily within their locality, region or province, or more permanently over greater distances. Regarding this chapter’s initial area of focus, the importance of inscriptions as a window to knowing about women in Roman society becomes clear. Whereas literary texts for all intents and purposes exclude references to personal female relationships, limiting their discourse to mostly erotic associations, the epigraphic record is replete with expressions of female friendship, both with other women and with men. In addition to examples of relationships characterised by friendship and enmity, love and hate, this chapter delineates the roles of women from different social strata. Those from elite families – women of senatorial rank, holding important priesthoods, and wives of military commanders – acted as patrons. Female members of the equestrian or plebeian classes cultivated connections with civic associations, acting as officials or holding membership in mixed-gender corpora or sodalitates – or, in one importance instance, an all-female collegium –, or being buried or commemorated by the voluntary organisations to which they belonged. The chapter ends with a section devoted to inscriptions that speak about female mobility – between local towns; to and from provincial capitals; occasionally as far afield as other regions; and migration from one province to another. As Hemelrijk notes, “the extent to which female travel was considered unremarkable in the epigraphic evidence suggests that, in the Roman Empire, it was a widespread and accepted practice” (p.209).

Chapter 5 considers the epigraphic evidence for women acting as priestesses or cult personnel, as well as their devotion to ritual practices and their collective and individual contributions to dedicatory or votive offerings. References in inscriptions to elite and wealthy freed women in public religious offices – services rendered to, benefactions conferred on, or public honours received from Roman cities in Italy and the Latin-speaking provinces – reflect a key category of civic role open to female participation. This public activity extends to the epigraphic record of less well-to-do freedwomen functioning as cult officials (administrators and supervisors) and performing specific acts (basket-bearers, keepers of animals, temple wardens, players of musical instruments, and sacrificial assistants). Related to these categories of female involvement as performers of and contributors to the religious life of their communities or of the state, women set up altars or other dedications to a wide repertoire of Roman and indigenous deities, male and female (from Jupiter, Juno, Dis Pater, and Mercurius to the Magna Mater, Isis, the Matronae Gesahenae and Boudunneihae, and Medru).

Chapter 6 deals with the official recognition inscriptions that preserve the memory of women in public life. Hemelrijk focuses here on women’s roles as civic benefactors, patrons and ‘mothers’ of cities and associations, the public honours they were granted in relation to these positions, and the support which women expressed for electoral candidates. The resources required to finance the kinds of public munificence usually associated with patronage of cities or institutions – construction of temples, theatres or amphitheatres, bathhouses and porticos; endowment of foundations; distribution of money or food to fellow citizens; provision of banquets and spectacles – and decisions to erect public portrait statues or hold public funerals in honour of such largesse were naturally reserved for women of wealth and high rank. On the other hand, the selection of electoral notices, drawn from Pompeiian programmata dating to the last decades before the eruption that buried the city, indicates that female engagement in local politics depended as much on social and public standing as great wealth or high position in the upper orders.

Chapter 7 samples the rich and plentiful epigraphic evidence for women of the imperial family from the Augustan period to the early third century CE (as well as two introductory examples of important republican women, the well-regarded Cornelia and much-maligned Fulvia). Organised according to three rubrics – life, death and deeds; titles and cult; wealth and staff –, the selection of inscriptions in this final chapter (epitaphs, building and honorific inscriptions, senatorial decrees, and water-pipe and brick stamps) confirms what Hemelrijk’s sourcebook has demonstrated throughout: namely, the utility of inscriptions as a means to compare and, in a number of instances, revise our knowledge and discern nuance in our understanding about the nature of women’s roles in Roman society and the reputation of historical figures otherwise maligned (Livia, Messalina, Agrippina Minor) or ignored (Plotina, the Matidias, Sabina) in the literary record.

Those readers who prefer to explore a collection of source material like this as an electronic artifact will derive considerable pleasure from seamless hyperlinked cross-referencing throughout the book. As well, Cambridge provides access to a PDF on the website accompanying the publication that reproduces the Latin and a few Greek texts, with entry numbers and titles equivalent to those used in the book. It is also pleasing to report that the catalogue of sources is usefully supported by a judicious selection of visual material. The volume features a selection of 71 black-and-white photographs, in the main of a good size where the inscribed text and other markings are displayed clearly in relation to their material context; these figures comprise representative examples of commemorative, dedicatory, funerary, legal and votive inscriptions, as well as a few instances of informal epigraphy (a curse text and a few graffiti). Three maps – Italy and the Augustan regions, Roman Italy, and the provinces of the Roman empire at the death of Septimius Severus – orient the reader to the geographical locations of inscriptions. An extremely useful glossary of important terms addresses the needs of readers new to epigraphy or ancient Roman society. A bibliography and index complete the volume.

There is a great deal of pleasure and a wealth of information to be derived from Women and Society in the Roman World. The publication of such a wide-ranging sample of inscriptions that address the lives and identities of Roman and non-Roman women is a singular and welcome addition to the scholarly database of reference materials. Until now, references in epigraphy to, about, or by women in classical antiquity have been restricted to useful but statistically minor supplements in the familiar anthologies of literary texts about women in antiquity – most notably, the four editions of Lefkowitz and Fant’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome.[2] Hemelrijk’s carefully curated and annotated collection of inscriptions fill a longstanding lacuna. Her sourcebook places front and centre the integral role of epigraphy as a rich reservoir of socio-historical and cultural detail about women extending beyond the strictly delimited stratum of elite and imperial households into all sectors of the ancient – and, in this case, Roman – world.


[1] A complete list of Hemelrijk’s publications can be found at:

[2] M.R. Lefkowitz and M.B. Fant (eds.), Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. London: Duckworth, 1982. Second edition, 1997. third edition, 2005 (Johns Hopkins University Press); fourth edition, 2016 (with Bloomsbury).