Exhibiting Roman Women Online

Portrait of Vibia Sabina, c. AD 130

Like most of the world, it has been an unusually long time since I was last able to venture out to visit a museum. As everyone has come so much more reliant on the digital world in the last year, quite a few museums are making more effort to make their collections available online and open access. This is wonderful, whether you are looking for a specific object for the purposes of research, or just want a good browse. The potential then, to also have exhibits online, is increasing, and as such I thought it worth highlighting one currently available, not just for its content, but also in terms of navigability and ease of use.

Currently, the Uffizi Gallery is hosting an exhibit entitled: Imperatrici, matrone, liberte (Empresses, Matrons, Freedwomen: Portraits and Secrets of the Women of Ancient Rome) that offers a 360 degree virtual tour. (It does seem to have the ability to connect with a VR headset as well). It is relatively easy to navigate as a whole. Click on one of the circles on the floor of the room to move around, or on one of the markers next to the object for a link to its catalogue entry, as can be seen in this image (tip: at the top of the webpage is an option to change between Italian and English in the catalogue). The information boards are in Italian and English and it is possible to navigate closely so that they may be read. A short film running on the wall of the second room has a link to the video on YouTube.

The exhibit covers the first two centuries of Imperial rule and comprises three parts: negative examples of women who defy the expectation of the matron, the model of proper Roman womanhood as exemplified by women of the Imperial family and ordinary women emulating that ideal, and finally the public acts of euergetism, patronage, and service in a religious context that members of the ruling family undertook. The two rooms housing the exhibit are filled with portrait busts, tombstones, manuscripts, and drawings. Some of the items (particularly the manuscripts) are not linked to any further information, which is slightly frustrating as it is not entirely clear why they are included. As far as I can tell, the pages on display are drawings ranging from the 16th to 18th century of the objects themselves, both as studies of the artwork and as records of past displays in the museum. Drawings contained in the second room are plans and illustrations of many of the buildings commissioned by Imperial women.

I think my favourite thing about this small collection is that there are two acts of erasure on display, but for very different reasons. The first is a damnatio memoriae. I’ve written previously about this kind of erasure in terms of the condemnation of figures from the ancient and early modern past. In the first instance, the altar of a young Junia Procula contains this kind of alteration. The name of her mother has been removed from the third line of the dedicatory inscription (CIL VI 20905):

Dis Manibus / Iuniae M(arci) f(iliae) Proculae vix(it) ann(os) VIII m(enses) XI d(ies) V miseros / patrem et matrem in luctu reliqui<t> fecit M(arcus) Iuniu[s M(arci) l(ibertus)?] / Euphrosynus sibi et [- – -]e. Tu sine filiae et parent{i}um in u[no ossa] / requ(i)escant quidquid nobis feceris idem tibi speres mihi crede tu tibi testis [eris].

‘To the Manes of Junia Procula, daughter of Marcus, lived 8 years, 11 months and 5 days, leaving her ill-starred parents to mourn. Marcus Junius Euphrosinus, [freedman of Marcus?] made (this) for himself and [[for Junia Acte]]. May the bones of the daughter and of the parents rest together. May you hope that what you have done to us be done also unto you. Believe me, you yourself [will be] witness to this.’

On the reverse of the altar, there is a clue as to why the name of Junia’s mother was erased:

Hic stigmata aeterna Acte libertae scripta sunt vene/nariae et perfidae dolosae duri pectoris clav<o>m et restem / sparteam ut sibi collum alliget et picem candentem / pectus malum com<b>urat suum. Manumissa grati(i)s / secuta adulterum patronum circumscripsit et / ministros ancillam et puerum lecto iacenti / patrono abduxit ut animo desponderet solus / relictus spoliatus senex. E(t) Hymno {f}<e>ade(m) sti(g)m(a)ta / secutis / Zosimum.

‘Let what is written stand as an everlasting curse on freedwoman Atte, evil and heartless poisoner and deceiver: let nails and a cordgrass rope bind her neck and boiling pitch burn her wicked breast. She was released without payment, not against her will, and left with her lover; she tricked her master and while he lay in bed, ill, she took away his maid and the young slave who assisted him, causing such pain that the old man, left alone, abandoned and robbed, lost heart. Let the same curse also fall on Imno and on those who followed Zosimus.’

This is, for all intents and purposes, a defexio, which was not a common thing to appear on a tomb. More to the point, being able to be read by another negates the efficacy of the curse, so that displaying it in this way is more about a public condemnation than a private desire for revenge. I can think of only one other (though less explicit) example of a funerary curse in the secondary inscription on the tomb of Publius Vesonius Phileros in Pompeii.

The second is a change in name, visible on the fragmentary dedication of a temple in Terracina. Originally put up by Livia and her son Tiberius sometime during the years between his ascension to the principate (AD 14) and her death (AD 29), the temple was rededicated and the inscription altered during the reign of Claudius. At this time, having been deified by her grandson, Livia was erased, and Diva Augusta carved in its place. As the Uffizi holds only a cast, it is much more clear in the original inscription (CIL 10.6309), held by the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Firenze.

Ironically, there is also an erasure/addition in the epitaph of Publius Vesonius Phileros, who added a new title as well, in his case he became an Augustalis.

Small though it is, this exhibit does encapsulate an impressive and varied collection of materials that present a brief glimpse into the many ways women were presented in the early years of the Imperial period. As an online tour, it works quite well, and I would be happy to see more of this type of thing in the future, not only because of ongoing lockdowns and travel bans, but because of the opportunity to visit, even virtually, many more exhibits around the world.

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