06 January 2017


So many books about Women in Antiquity really tell 'just so'  stories about fictional females -- and very much less about real women of the distant past.

Achilles and the princesses of Skyros, Late Roman mosaic
They might, for example, kick off with tales of goddesses and heroines, perhaps followed by fanciful Amazons, and then go on to describe famous female characters from the classics, harking back to Homer, Hesiod, or Virgil -- just as if those ladies had actually existed. But, no, they never existed: they were stories created by men and meant for the pleasure of other men. At best, they might also instruct us ('us' being the real women) in how we should behave, or, more often than not, how we should not behave.

So that, even now, our picture of ancient women is very much slanted towards imaginary figures, and not based on women who had actually once lived and breathed.

Dr Stephanie Budin thought about this one morning when she woke up at 3 a.m., grumpily dissatisfied with the latest book to  have appeared with 'Ancient Women' in its title.  Why oh why, she wondered, did the best parts go to the fictional females of myth and literature? Somewhere along the line, they almost lost track of the real women of the past -- those with bodies, names, occupations, interests, sex lives, religious duties, and passions. Shouldn't we learn about them instead? Adding insult to injury, she grumbled, their 'ancient world' consisted primarily of Greece and Rome. What about the generations of women who had lived and died in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Syria, Cyprus, Etruria, and even, at a stretch, in the Germanic and Celtic fringes of Europe?  Going back to sleep, she dreamed of that kind of book.  

And  now, along with co-editor Dr Jean Turfa, she has it: a brand-new, hefty volume (tipping the scales at 2 kg/4.5 lb),  WOMEN IN ANTIQUITY: Real Women Across the Ancient WorldFor Budin + Turfa, the 'Ancient World' takes off in the east in Mesopotamia, runs around both shores of the Mediterranean, and ends in  Iberia in the west.  In a sense, it covers the areas reached, ruled, or influenced by the Roman Empire (with the puzzling exception of Brexit-land). What we have are 74 (!) crisp chapters, each written by a specialist, many of whom are sharing with us the results of their own latest research and excavations.  

For those who need to know, 58 authors are female, 16 are male.

How long is Antiquity?

Lapis lazuli seal of Queen Puabi, Royal Cemetery of Ur, First Dynasty or earlier

Well, that depends.  Pride of place goes to Mesopotamia (which will elicit howls of protest from Egyptologists), with the first of its eleven chapters starting ca. 3000 BCE, when the first cities appeared and cuneiform writing began. It ends three millennia later, with the fall of the Persian Empire before the onslaught of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.  What were the real women who lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers doing during all that time? Stephanie Budin minces no words: her lead chapter examines 'Female sexuality in Mesopotamia'.  Chapter 2 examines its consequences: 'Being mothers or acting (like) mothers?'.  Then, a chapter takes a look at high life: 'Images of queens, high priestesses, and other elite women' (Ch. 3) -- women like Queen Puabi, one of whose precious lapis lazui seals is illustrated above: no man's name is mentioned, which probably means that she was a queen in her own right. Coming down the social ladder with a bump, we find 'The female tavern-keeper in Mesopotamia' (Ch. 8). Though prominent in myth (the 'beer-tapster' Siduri in the Epic of Gilgamesh) this chapter keeps rigorously to the written sources where we learn about the taxes she might pay, and where she ran her taverns (near a city gate) or the barley and beer she might lend out just like any merchant giving goods on credit. Both trades were notorious for fraud, so laws tried to control their shady dealings: "Neither a merchant nor a tapstress will accept silver, grain, wood, oil, or anything else from a male or female slave."

You get the idea.

A magical birth brick from Late Middle Kingdom Abydos
Eternal Egypt boasts nine chapters, starting quite as early but ending with the end of the Bronze Age (ca. 1080 BCE), when the last of the native Egyptian dynasties came to grief and foreign dynasties took over.  Sadly, this excludes one of my favourite times, Dynasty 22 in the Third Intermediate Period, when Egypt was under Libyan rule, and the highest of high-priestesses, the God's Wife of Amun ran the top temple in Thebes.  Even Budin + Turfa can't cover everything. Rather, the lead chapter fully exploits CT-scans of the extraordinarily well-preserved bones and mummies of Egypt to create a vivid picture of women's bodies, health, medical treatment, and even their hairdos. Other chapters explore the amazing Egyptian written record, for example, examining the lives of women who lived in the New Kingdom "Harem Town" of Gurob in the Fayoum oasis.  These were elite, even royal women active in cults within temples, shrines, and palaces; some left behind  wooden statues of themselves, a few with their names inscribed: meet the ladies Tuty, Mi, Maya, and Nebetia, whose statues prove their roles in life.

Panel on the Gundestrup silver cauldron, Danish Jutland, 1-2 C BCE

Naturally, some sections of Women in Antiquity are much briefer, a mere handful of centuries.  Particularly at the peripheries (as the Celtic lands, Iberia, and bogs of pre-Viking Scandinavia or, at the other end of the world, Nubia), the study of women is still in its early stages.  In such places, written records hardly exist and excavators have only recently begun to differentiate male from female burials in a scientific manner (past burials were generally gendered by  weapons or jewellery, categories that are surprisingly often misleading).  Details on the periphery are still scarce -- though much more is known than I ever knew. 

Etruscan statue from Pietrera tomb (ca 625 BCE)
Needless to say, the more familiar Greeks (7 chapters) , Etruscans and early Italic women (11), and Romans (11) are in no way slighted.  Equally, the Bronze Age Minoans and Mycenaeans receive their due (7 chapters), though fantasies of matriarchy are quickly put out to pasture.  

Summing up Women in Antiquity, I don't care how familiar you think you are with any of these cultures, there will be plenty new to learn. But, of course, no one can possibly be familiar with them all.  To keep us within our comfort zone, each section starts with a useful general introduction, a brief historical summary, and explanation of the chronology of the time and place.  So there you have it: 74 chapters, some written by senior scholars, others by freshly-minted PhDs, on subjects ranging from a woman's daily life to her place in the economy, from princesses to prostitutes, on motherhood, beauty and healthreligious festivals and black magic, from the care of children to (inevitably) death.

In short, the ups and downs and doings of half the human race over many thousands of years in a vast geographical area.  

To 'Look inside', click here.


Top left: Achilles being adored by princesses of Skyros (Iliad) where Odysseus finds him dressed as a woman, hiding at the royal court of Skyros. Late Roman marble and tiled glass mosaic, 2.20 by 2.50 m, from La Olmeda, Spain, 4th-5th centuries AD.  Photo credit: Wikimedia

Second left: Dama de Baza, funerary statues from Iberian necropolis of Cerro del Santuario de Baza (Grenada) Spain, courtesy of Museo Arqueologico Nacional. From the front cover of WOMEN IN ANTIQUITY: Real Women Across the Ancient World, Routledge 2016

Top centre: Personal seal of Queen Puabi, First Dynasty of Ur or earlier. Forensic examination suggests that the queen was 40 years old when she died and just under five feet (152 cm) tall. Her name and title are known from the inscription on one of three cylinder seals found on her person.  Photo credit: British Museum via Sanjeetartist.blogspot

Mid centre: Painted reconstruction of baked clay birth brick, showing the mother and newborn, with attendants and Hathor standards on either side.  Photo credit: Josef Wegner, "The Magical Birth Brick" Expedition Magazine 48.2 (July 2006): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, July 2006 Web. 04 Jan 2017.

Third left: Gilded silver Gundestrup cauldron, composed of thirteen embossed panels (each 42 cm. high and  69 cm. diameter [16"x 27"]), manufactured ca. 100 BCE, found dismantled in a peat-bog in Danish Jutland.  This scene from an outer plate shows a large central female figure having her hair braided by a diminutive servant.  Photo credit: via LabyrinthDesigners + the Art of Fire blog.

Lower left: Almost life-size Etruscan limestone statue of 'princess' found in the Pietrera tomb at Vetulonia (ca. 625 BCE) --  one of four free-standing husband-wife couples from within the tomb and among the oldest examples of stone sculpture in Etruria. Photo credit: Fernando Guerrini and Mauro del Sarto. Soprintendenza Archeologica della Toscana; via Zenobia: Empress of the East

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