BMCR 2024.05.25

The public lives of ancient women (500 BCE-650 CE)

, , , The public lives of ancient women (500 BCE-650 CE). Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 468. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. x, 323. ISBN 9789004533295.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


This volume presents the proceedings of a colloquium in honour of Emily Hemelrijk on the occasion of her retirement. During her scholarly career, Hemelrijk has consistently labored to shed light on the public face of Roman women in the Western provinces of the empire. She demonstrated that individual elite women in the Roman empire were prominent agents in the fabric of civic life who made their own choices and left their mark on urban communities. Her magnum opus of 2015, Hidden Lives, Public Personae. Women and Civic Life in the Roman West, outlined the ways in which wealthy elite women received civic honour as benefactresses, patronesses and priestesses in connection with communities and associations, and in return contributed substantially to urban public space and the day-to-day running of the Roman city.[1] Although women were often elected for a position as representatives of an elite family—as men were—Hemelrijk illustrated that women negotiated their position individually. In this respect, women in the Latin West are thought to have been more independent from men than their counterparts in the East of the empire, where women were publicly represented largely within a familial framework.[2] Hemelrijk’s expertise is wide-ranging and brings together a broad range of literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence. Her invaluable sourcebook of 2020, Women and Society in the Roman World, has unlocked a great many epigraphic sources reflecting the lives of Roman women to a larger scholarly audience.[3]

Contributors to this volume were invited to build on Hemelrijk’s work in relation to their own respective research topics. The volume’s chronological scope, as a result, stretches over more than a millennium (500 BCE – 650 CE). The papers offer a balanced consideration of both East and West, and deal with a large variety of source material. The result is a surprisingly insightful assortment of thirteen articles by colleagues, students, and friends of the honorand. The book does an admirable job of bringing to the fore that Hemelrijk’s legacy is much more extensive than her specialist research focus might suggest, inspiring others to include women more broadly into any account of Antiquity.[4]

As the editors, Lucinda Dirven, Martijn Icks, and Sofie Remijsen, point out in their introduction, an undeniable tension remains between the scholarly aim of bringing ancient women ‘out of the domestic sphere and into the public eye’ [7] and the fact that the evidence consists in large part of ‘male perceptions of powerful women’ [4]. The male gaze is evident in all of the literary evidence and in much of the material, visual and epigraphic evidence adduced in separate chapters. Rolf Strootman’s encyclopedic rendering of warrior queens in the Hellenistic world, for example, shows that queens were portrayed in whatever role was expected of a ruler, to represent and to secure a dynasty. The public persona of a queen was modeled on a male template and could therefore include their military presence and leadership on the battlefield in a militarized world. Military aptitude among royal women is especially well attested for late fourth-century Macedonia, but not even the Macedonian women escaped judgement for crossing the boundaries of gendered expectations. Lucinda Dirven focuses on two warrior queens of the Arab world, Zenobia and Mawia, both of whom appear to fit the pattern described by Strootman well. Dirven, however, reflects more explicitly on the difficulties of retrieving the historical person behind the literary persona.

The literary evidence on Roman women similarly provides a great many details about imagery and public personae, but not—I would say—about their public lives. Lien Foubert analyses elite women in ancient historical literature to illustrate how the Roman matron in the Republic was seen to embody the domus, finding that this holds true for both the women who travelled (and who were therefore no longer in the domus), and for those who elected to stay at home in the civil war period. In these sources, women were not the agents of their own image, though they are presented as active agents in the ancient narrative. It is a male ideology of domus and forum that shapes the public role of these Roman matronae.

Martijn Icks offers an astute deconstruction of the inconsistent characterization of the empresses of the Severan dynasty, suggesting that their representation was meant only to underline the assessment of the reigning emperor as intended by the author. Virtually nothing is left of the historical ‘four Julias’ behind the tropes and counterweights. The same may very well be true for the later empress Theodora, as can be inferred from Daniëlle Slootjes’ paper. Procopius presents Theodora as the more steadfast ruler when the emperor Justinian contemplates running from the mob during the Nika riots in 532, reflecting what may well have been Procopius’ general sentiments about Justinian’s rule. Theodora’s mosaic image in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, too, is a counterimage to that of her husband, completing a more conventional ideal image of the imperial couple, represented there as an indication of imperial approval and legitimacy for the church. The public image of Theodora therefore serves various purposes, but it does not reveal much of her historical presence.

Hemelrijk posited that Roman imperial legislation and marriage patterns of the early empire were particularly conducive to Roman women’s public presence and agency, which contradicts the normative rendering of literary personae under the empire.[5] Indeed, Emilia Salerno’s paper shows how Augustan ideology shapes Livy’s depiction of Pacullia Annia’s engagement as the priestess who brought the mysteries of Bacchus to Rome ‘corrupting Roman men and women’ [175], and Tacitus’ account of Messalina’s involvement in the cult emphasizes how she overturned expected gender patterns. A second-century inscription from Latium also adduced by Salerno, however, suggests that by this time, or perhaps in epigraphic evidence more generally, the cult and women’s prominent position in it was uncontroversial. The volume might have benefited more from its broad timeframe to explore exactly this type of chronological development. Epigraphic evidence, for example, underlines the increasing presence of women in the agonistic sphere from the Roman period onwards, as demonstrated here by Onno van Nijf. He indicates that women were always present in the Greek realm of sport, but that their participation as contestants and benefactresses became more wide-ranging and widespread from the Roman period onwards. This development can be corroborated by the contributions of Hamelink, Roels, and Whiting, where epigraphic and visual evidence shows women in the imperial period taking up a public position without any ideological qualms.[6]

Anique Hamelink deals with the question how women in the province of Britain were presented on public funerary monuments as reclining at a banquet: a Roman practice of public representation of ‘wished-for status, privilege, luxury and pleasure’ [256], where women in Britain are regularly presented unaccompanied. This feature is unique to the province, which Hamelink explains as inspired by the military presence there. Her findings suggest that women’s public presence was unproblematic, at least in Roman Britain. Evelien Roels discusses a fascinating dynastic mausoleum from second-century Oinoanda where Licinnia Flavilla takes pride of place in its genealogical inscription. Flavilla focuses solely on familial relations rather than the ‘imperial relations and splendid individual careers’ recorded by men [244]. Its form as a text monument, however, is in accordance with local (male) epigraphic habit. Combined with the wealth and status which Flavilla advertises with this monument, it indicates to me that she also pursued public honour and recognition for herself. That would be consistent with Hemelrijk’s findings for the Latin West. Distinctions between Eastern and Western gender patterns are therefore not always clear-cut. Indeed, Marlena Whiting’s contribution demonstrates that in the sixth and seventh centuries even the Christian ‘rhetoric of pious humility’ [313] did not substantially alter women’s public presence as benefactresses and patronesses. Her analysis of inscriptions by women from Palaestina and Arabia shows that Christianity inspired a different vocabulary, but that epigraphic utterances still very deliberately documented social rank and titles. In this way, she places her findings in line with those of Hemelrijk for the Western provinces. Whiting’s chapter therefore raises the question of the (chronological? religious?) limits to gender patterns of the West and the East, which would have merited more attention in the volume than a single ‘however’ from the editors in the introduction.

Most contributions align their findings with either Hemelrijk’s findings for the West, or Van Bremen’s for the East. Josine Blok and Janric van Rookhuijsen’s reappraisal of the Hekatompedon inscription, however, does not. Their contribution reveals that this document consisted of safety regulations for the sanctuaries of the Acropolis which were aimed at all religious attendants, some of whom just happened to be the female priestesses of Athena. This type of evidence perhaps records the public lives of ancient women most convincingly: a casual mention in a legal document. Sanne Klaver brings gendered patterns in naming practices and dress among the elite of Dura Europos to the fore by analysing representations and inscriptions in three temple halls. Although it is interesting to learn that (Macedonian-) Greek names were emphasized as status markers and that these were reserved largely for men, the chapter in my view also underlines a different important point: women and men’s equal presence publicly inscribed and depicted within the temples.

For gender studies, finally, if not for the public lives of Roman women in particular, the paper by Sofie Remijsen is the most thought-provoking. She presents an investigation of women’s use of time (female temporalities) in papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt. Remijsen finds gendered patterns with a female preference for biological time indications and a male preference for clock time, but she also finds tantalizing hints of women mastering clock-time: this is a way forward to try to understand the lived experiences of Roman women and the words they themselves gave to it.

Despite divergent approaches and the wide-ranging research focus of the various authors, Hemelrijk’s work proves to be a solid anchor to bring them together. It is to be expected that many readers will zoom in on only one of the contributions in this volume. Let this review serve as a call against that, however, as reading a single contribution is certainly worthwhile, but diminishes the book’s greatest merit: Reading all the papers together offers a thought-provoking overview of the current state of the art and the road ahead for any study of women and gender in Antiquity.


Authors and Titles

Lucinda Dirven, Martijn Icks and Sofie Remijsen, Introduction.

Lucinda Dirven, Martijn Icks and Sofie Remijsen, Complete List of Publications by Emily A. Hemelrijk.

  1. Rolf Strootman, Warrior Queens of the Hellenistic World.
  2. Martijn Icks, Empresses Taking Charge: The Powerful Women of the Severan House in the Literary Sources.
  3. Lucinda Dirven, Zenobia versus Mawia: A Note on Warrior Queens and Female Power in the Arab World.
  4. Daniëlle Slootjes, Image and Reality The Public and Persuasive Power of the Empress Theodora.
  5. Josine Blok and Janric van Rookhuijzen, Priestesses in the Sacred Space of the Acropolis: A Close Reading of the Hekatompedon Inscription.
  6. Onno M. van Nijf, Bringing Women into the Agonistic Sphere: Sport, Women and Festivals in the Greek World under Rome.
  7. Sofie Remijsen, Women on Time: Gendered Temporalities in Greco-Roman Egypt.
  8. Emilia Salerno, Ut sacrificantes vel insanientes Bacchae: Bacchus’ Women in Rome.
  9. Lien Foubert, Discourses of a Changing Society: Women’s (Im)mobility in Times of Civil War.
  10. Evelien J.J. Roels, Present in Public Lettering: The Epigraphic Dossier of Licinnia Flavilla at Oinoanda (IGR iii 500) and the Phenomenon of Honorific Text Monuments in Imperial Asia Minor.
  11. Anique Hamelink , Publicly Luxurious: Banqueting Women on Tombstones in Roman Britain.
  12. Sanne Klaver, Beautiful Names and Impeccable Dress: The Women of Dura-Europos.
  13. Marlena Whiting, Female Patronage in Late Antiquity: Titles and Rank of Women Donors in Sixth- and Seventh-Century Palaestina and Arabia.



[1] Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West, New York/ Oxford 2015.

[2] On the public representations of women in the East: Riet van Bremen, The Limits of Participation: Women and Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Amsterdam 1996.

[3] Women and Society in the Roman World: A Sourcebook of Inscriptions from the Roman West, Cambridge 2020.

[4] To the bibliography of Hemelrijk’s publications at the beginning of the volume can now be added ‘Matronal virtues, professional pride and divine associations. Funerary commemoration of freedwomen in Roman Italy’, Eugesta 13: 2023, 85–121.

[5] Hemelrijk, Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West, New York/ Oxford 2015, 22–25, 130–134.

[6] In line with the chronological development described in Van Bremen 1996.