Re-writing Women’s History

Women at a dinner party from the Fullonica of Sestius Venustus, I.3.18.

On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, it seems an opportune time to consider something about how we approach women in ancient history and archaeology. I am hardly one who would normally consider myself an expert on gender studies, nor am I well versed in the appropriate theory. But that certainly doesn’t prevent women from appearing in my research, sometimes quite prominently, and when they do, I often find myself disappointed, if not a bit enraged by the results. I have often said there are certain areas of study where logic seems to fly out the window and this is certainly one of them – assumptions are made (not exclusively by male scholars I should add) – about how women would have behaved, their importance or influence in ancient life, and their ability to have agency. In my work on Pompeii, I have encountered this time and again in regards to funerary commemoration, the epigraphic record, especially in regards to the ability or to read and write graffiti, and in political engagement to name just a few areas.

Take, for example, Naevoleia Tyche, a woman I wrote about extensively in my first book. She and her husband have two separate tombs on opposite sides of the city. The conclusion has always been that he died first, and she, being the stereotypical nouveau riche freedwoman, wasn’t happy with the fairly humble structure and built her own more lavish tomb. Except if you crawl around the back (careful – brambles!) of the monument built by her husband, you discover that it was built as a single structure with the neighbouring tomb, its twin in design, that belongs to a fellow member of the Augustales. Add in the award of a civic honour to the husband, and the interpretation changes entirely. She is not a dissatisfied upwardly mobile bitch: her husband probably honoured an agreement with his friend in building the first tomb, and then the other was built to include his new honours and establish a more substantial (and yes, status grabbing) monument for their heirs. As the tombs were built in the same decade, it is just as likely he was involved as he wasn’t. It is impossible to know, but the assumption, which is more likely than not based on more modern ideas about women and wealth, remains nonetheless. And this irks me.

In the back of my mind somewhere there is, therefore, this sort of constant niggling thought about how to do better when it comes to presenting the women of antiquity, and I admit I have struggled at times to do it as I would like, both in my research and my teaching. Occasionally though, there are moments in research where you have a half formed idea about a theory or an approach, and then you come across something that helps it all fall into place. It is revelatory  – a moment of clarity – allowing you to not only move forward with your research, but also changing your thinking in a significant way. For me, this happened last year with the nearly simultaneous reading of two books on Roman women: Anise K. Strong’s Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World (2016) and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s The Brothel of Pompeii (2019), the latter of which I read in part for a review in the Journal of Roman Studies.

It might seem obvious to suggest these two books intersect significantly. After all, they are both fundamentally concerned with prostitution in the Roman world. But it is not necessarily the subject that is important here, but rather the method by which the topic is approached. Both scholars are logical. They approach the evidence as evidence, and evaluate it for what it is. I realise that sounds like what we, as researchers are supposed to do, but it doesn’t always happen that way, especially when it comes to women. For example, there are a large number of women whose names appear in the electoral dipinti of Pompeii. Henrik Mouritsen has dismissed them repeatedly as insignificant. Women can’t vote, so have no role to play in politics. He doesn’t really provide a decent explanation for why women would be involved in the programmata, and does not appear to think they are even worth mentioning in an attempt to understand the political life of Pompeii. He all but erases them. In his effort to document the graffiti of the city, Matteo Della Corte decided that if a woman’s name appeared in a graffito, she was most likely a prostitute. If her name appeared more than once (even though, due to the nature of graffiti, it might not actually be the same individual) she was definitely a whore. Never mind the fact that women did inscribe graffiti themselves, and could have signed her own name in the same way countless men did.

Logic, therefore, hasn’t always been applied.

For both Strong and Levin-Richardson, however, logic is the rule. This is not only a hugely refreshing change in scholarship, but to my mind, is the way forward. Strip back the ideas that have been formed over the last two hundred years, and start from the beginning. Look at the evidence as evidence, not as evidence for women or prostitutes or whatever category it may be. Go where that leads.

The brothel in Pompeii is, without doubt, one of the most popular buildings for tourists to visit in the city. It is presented by guides as a dark and narrow space, with small, uncomfortable masonry beds, erotic graffiti scratched into the walls by bored men waiting their turn, and titillating paintings of sex acts, a menu of sorts, providing options over each doorway. (And if you doubt this is still the case, my dad got into an argument with a guide we overheard relaying such nonsense.) One could argue this is for tourists alone, but many scholars have repeated similar claims. The brothel has been described as dark and seedy, the paintings as obscene, the beds as small and indicative of the lowest kind of establishment. Levin-Richardson has shown quite the opposite by evaluating the evidence for what it is, not where it is. Removed from the context of a place selling sex, the masonry couches are bigger than the average found in houses in Pompeii and elsewhere in the Greek and Roman world. They are bigger, indeed, than many dining couches meant to hold three reclining adults. The majority of the graffiti does not contain any sexual or erotic content. The frescoes are heteronormative, male-female pairs engaged in genital to genital (no oral or anal) sex, with the women’s breasts obscured by linens or breast bands. The material finds of razors and basins and cups suggest drinking, possible food consumption, and grooming. This isn’t a den of inequity. It is, in Levin-Richardson’s words a ‘carefully curated sexual universe’ that was more about selling a sexual experience than sex. It was, she concludes, likely a failed business model and probably the reason that this structure, although held as the exemplum of a Roman brothel, is the only one of its kind.

Strong takes a larger view of women and sex – not just focusing on paid sex workers, but on the relationship Romans had with sex and sexuality both in and out of the home. This a wide ranging approach, considering moral and legal standpoints in addition to the material remains. She too is logical, approaching the evidence in a manner that allows her to (I think quite successfully) dismantle some long held scholarly interpretations of the ancient evidence. The seemingly ubiquitousness of sexual activity in wall paintings – whether in a brothel, bath house, or private home – have staunchly been viewed as depicting prostitutes rather than husbands and wives or any other possible pairing in what she refers to as ‘an unfortunate legacy of nineteenth-century prudishness.’ Consider that there are no known images of prostitutes that survive: there was no clear visual distinctions between prostitutes and matrons for Romans, it was a moral one. Therefore, the standard view that any paintings of fully clothed women are wives and any semi-nude or naked are whores, regardless of context or location cannot hold true. Strong also does a comprehensive job of dispelling ideas about sexual behaviours and moral zoning. She details the many ways ancient literature informs us that matrons and prostitutes did interact. Livy’s account of the Bacchanalian affair, for example, includes the prostitute Hispala Faecenia being housed in the house of Sulpicia whilst the cult is investigated. That upper-class Roman women were sheltered or somehow removed from sex outside of the marriage bed is also problematic. Ovid, for example, claims he wrote Ara Amatoria for meretrices (1.31-4), but that cannot be meant literally. (As Strong says: ‘‘He cannot be alleging that his audience consists of impoverished illiterate streetwalkers.’) The elegists wrote of extra-marital affairs with proper Roman matrons, which goes against everything modern scholars assume about this category of women. This is why Strong says that ‘[e]ven if the women themselves are imaginary characters, the invention of an entire fictional category of women for poets to make socially acceptable love with seems implausible.’ That this type of poetry existed suggests that Romans were more fluid in their understanding and tolerance of sexual relationships than we allow them to be.

Her take on the concept of identifying brothels is also… well… logical. What do brothels need? Not the masonry beds, sexual images, and erotic graffiti that Andrew Wallace Hadrill and others have used to identify brothels. Brothels need to be centrally located to attract clientele, preferably with multiple access points, and a reliable source of water. The brothel in Pompeii certainly fits this model – Levin-Richardson even identifies nearby public fountains and imagines the collection of water as a way for the prostitutes to drum up business or take a break – as do a number of other sites Strong identifies. She points out that both Cicero and Frontinus complain about public water being siphoned off by brothels (Cic. Cael. 34; Frontinus de Aqua. 76.1-2), and illustrates through other literary sources that brothels were central, and generally not shame inducing for male clients to use. The former characteristics used for identification are rightly dismissed as unnecessary. A bed isn’t a pre-requisite for sex. Water for washing afterwards is. Logic.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about the content of these books. Ultimately though, they represent so much more than the sum of their research. The manner in which Levin-Richardson and Strong evaluate evidence, removed from the burden of nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations, and see it for the sake of itself, is startling in its approach. It shouldn’t be, but it is. I think that this is why I found reading the books together transformative, because they simultaneously reinforced just how badly the study of women in antiquity has ofttimes been done, and at the same time, present a way forward. I, for one, will happily follow in their footsteps.

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