Rock the (Female) Vote



One thing that has always been a bit of a pet peeve in my teaching of the ancient world is when students talk about both Greece and Rome as misogynist societies because women didn’t have the right to vote. Whilst I’m not denying that the ancient world was, for the most part, patriarchal by design, I’ve always found the enfranchisement of women as a rather daft piece of evidence considering that women couldn’t vote in the UK until 1918 (and even then only those over 30 with property qualifications) and in the US from 1919. It seems somewhat ridiculous to my mind to hold the ancient world to a standard that wasn’t met in modern life until the 20th century. Women in ancient Rome certainly couldn’t hold political office or vote, which we know from the laws collected by Justinian (D. 50.17.2), but there is ample evidence from Pompeii that women were very much engaged in the political process.

Amongst the electoral programmata that once covered the walls of Pompeii, there are fifty-four women supporting the candidacies of twenty-eight men. The majority of these women, thirty-three of them in fact, do so alone. That is, the dipiniti for which they are responsible is sponsored by them alone.

CIL IV 3479
Caecilium Capellam // d(uum)v(irum) i(ure) d(icundo) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Cornelia rog(at).
‘Cornelia begs you to elect (Lucius) Caecilius Capella duovir with judicial powers.’

Perhaps surprisingly, (see above – patriarchal society), only thirteen women offer an electoral notice with a man.

CIL IV 207
M(arcum) Cerrinium Vatiam aed(ilem) / Nymphodotus cum Caprasia rog(at).
‘Nymphodotus with Caprasia asks you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile.’

Four women sponsored dipinti with another woman, and two represent a larger group, as indicated by the word suis.

CIL IV 3294 = 3678
M(arcum) Casellium et L(ucium) Albucium aed(iles) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Statia et Petronia rog(ant) tales cives in colonia in perpetuo.
‘Statia and Petronia beg you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius, excellent citizens for the perpetuity of the colony, aediles.’

CIL IV 1053
Polybium / IIvir(um) Lollia / cum suis.‘Lollia, with hers, (asks you to vote) for Polybius, duovir.’

What is particularly interesting, however, is that some of the candidates who are supported by female rogators have an incredibly high proportion of these notices. Gaius Iulius Polybius, for example, is supported by six different women: Cosseia (CIL IV 10051), Cuculla (CIL IV 7841 = AE 1913: 95), Fabia (CIL IV 7189), Specula (CIL IV 7167), Vatia (CIL IV 123), and Zmyrina (CIL IV 7864 = AE 1912: 238). Another candidate popular amongst the female population of Pompeii was Gnaeus Helvinius Sabinus. He is supported by nine women – although the data may be skewed in part because he has far more surviving notices – Aegle (CIL IV 7862 = AE 1912: 236), Biria (CIL IV 9885), Caprasia (CIL IV 923), Iunia (CIL IV 1168), Maria (CIL IV 7866), Parthope (CIL IV 3403), Poppaea (CIL IV 357), Primgenia (CIL IV 3410), and Recepta (CIL IV 1083). What made these particular men so popular and seen as worthy of a magisterial position remains, unfortunately, lost in history. The programmata written by women do not differ in format from those by men, and thus give no specific clues as to why these women chose to support these men.

The evidence for women participating in the electoral process in Pompeii despite not being able to vote or run for office themselves is one that has always intrigued me, and one, as I stated at the outset, that I think challenges the idea of  women accepting a non-civically minded role in the ancient world. In the final weeks leading up to the American presidential election, the idea of the impact of women voting (or actively campaigning for male candidates) has taken on a new importance. Polls have revealed that women alone may be responsible for the defeat of Donald Trump. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but the possibility, in conjunction with the ancient evidence, demonstrates how much women are interested in politics, and always have been.


Hail, Caesar!



Like a lot of Classicists I know, I have eagerly been anticipating the latest film from the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! I expect, however, that I might be slightly unusual in that besides a vague professional interest in how the ancient world is depicted on screen, I also have a deep and abiding love for Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, which are exactly the setting for this movie. (I did, after all, spend a recent Sunday afternoon in the cinema watching Cover Girl, which stars my favourite song and dance man Gene Kelly alongside Rita Hayworth. Gene Kelly is the model for the character played by Channing Tatum, who first appears on screen as the lead in an ensemble cast of Navy men, bemoaning their forthcoming time at sea and lack of women: ‘We’ll see a lot of fish but we’ll never see a dish!’ This throwback to Kelly is no where more evident than when they are dancing on tables whilst the disgruntled barkeep pulls the tablecloths from under their feet.) There are colleagues more expert than I who have already begun writing about classical themes in the film, and there is little that I would want to add, except that I particularly enjoyed seeing replicas of the Augustus Prima Porta flanking the temple on the stage set for the film within a film that provided the title. Instead, as I sat in the dark cinema scribbling illegible notes to myself, it wasn’t the representation of Rome that piqued my interest, but something else all together.

The film within a film, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ, in which George Clooney’s character of Baird Whitlock stars, is a send-up of the typical big budget sword and sandal epics of the mid-twentieth century. It is Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments all rolled into one. But most importantly, it is Spartacus – not the film itself, but the circumstances in which the film was made. Made in 1960, Stanley Kubrick‘s film and its star Kirk Douglas, went some way to end the blacklisting that had run rampant in Hollywood throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. Howard Fast, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, was blacklisted and as a result, originally had to self-publish his book. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950, but refused to name any fellow members of the Communist Party. The screenwriter for the film was a man named Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in 1947 as part of the Hollywood Ten, a group who were accused by HUAC of not only subverting democracy by inserting Communist propaganda into their films, but also for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional hearings. Douglas is credited with insisting that Trumbo not use a pseudonym in the credits, and thus ended the blacklisting. Rather famously, JFK crossed picket lines in order to see the film, demonstrating that the activities of McCarthyism were well and truly at an end.

So… what does this have to do with the latest effort of the Coen brothers? Herein lies the only spoiler: there are Communists in the film. Screenwriters, producers, and others gather to bemoan their role in producing for the studio, which they claim is an instrument of capitalism. That they are speaking of a company called Capital Studios is surely no coincidence. As part of their discussion over finger sandwiches and tea in a Malibu mansion, they cheer themselves for inserting Communist ideas into films, exactly as the Hollywood Ten were accused of doing. When Clooney’s character is kidnapped and converted to the political and economic agenda of the Communists, he threatens, upon learning he won’t get a share of the ransom paid to return him, to ‘name names.’ The elements that surround this plotline, which is indeed only one of many in the film overall, are clearly more about the history of blacklisting in Hollywood than it is about Rome itself. Others have commented on the economic aspects of this film, but I think have failed to recognise the significance of the statement this makes about politics, the arts, and fear. Douglas said, in reference to his work on Spartacus, ‘I was making a film about freedom at a time when freedom in America was in jeopardy.’ Well, quite. In the current political climate in the U.S., with many recent comparisons between a declining American way of life and the end of the Roman Empire, it seems the Coens have inserted a pertinent warning wrapped up in farce of just how bad things can get when party politics, fear-mongering rhetoric, and demagoguery rule the day.

I think maybe I’ll go watch Gene Kelly dance his way across Paris and into Leslie Caron’s heart. That’s a much nicer story.


O tempora, o mores!


There has been quite a bit of kerfuffle in the past week about Senator Ted Cruz’s recent speech against President Obama that was more or less lifted directly from the first of Cicero’s speeches against Cataline (with changes marked in red, the full transcript of the doctored text can be found here):

‘When, O Catiline President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill border — do not the watches posted throughout the city — does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men and women — does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place — do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you?’

Delivered to the Senate in 63 BC, this speech focused on revealing the plotting of Lucius Sergius Catilina, a nobleman and senator, to kill Cicero, a number of other senators, and seize power for himself.

Of course, as any Classicist can tell you, the point of Cicero’s speech was to expose the plot of Cataline, and thus Cruz’s use of it places himself in the role of the noble statesman (Cicero, who was consul at the time), and Obama as the treasonous, illegitimate and self-appointed destroyer of the Republic (Cataline). This comparison to the current US president is not exactly a valid one – part of what got Cataline’s toga in a twist was losing what he perceived as his birthright, the office of consul, to Cicero – a novus homo, the previous year. Cataline’s subsequent attempts to get elected were so corrupt Cicero enacted a law to prevent his actions of bribery and forceful persuasion. If we truly want to draw a modern political parallel, G.W. Bush circa the second week of November 2000 would be more apropos than a sitting president in his second term. Regardless, as others have already pointed out, Cruz’s use of this speech is a misappropriation of its true intent at best, and dangerous, threatening rhetoric at worst. Indeed, his likening of a president to a man planning revolution such as Cataline seems far more treasonous an act, regardless of politics.

I have never held a great fondness for Cicero, despite recent work on his letters, but I do find his use in a modern political setting fascinating, in as much for his own presence as for the profound influence the Roman Republic has had on modern democracy. Most people will trace the American democracy to Athens, who obviously invented the concept of government by and for the people. However, I have always thought, regardless of the original intention of our much revered (and often greatly mis-understood) founding fathers, that the true design of the government is an oligarchy, and one that Cicero would have adored. Apparently I’m not alone in this conclusion. Cicero was, after all, a member of the optimates, a group of men including Sulla, Cato, and others, who were determined to not only safeguard but increase the power of the Senate and the aristocracy, limiting the power of the people’s assemblies, the tribune of the plebs, and restricting access to land, the grain dole, citizenship and debt relief. The opposite group, the populares, (think, at their earliest, the Gracchi brothers) were locked in a political struggle throughout the end of the Republic with the likes of Marius, Pompey, and Caesar fighting on behalf of the people. The assassination of Caesar by other members of the Senate (i.e. the optimates), of course, leads to civil wars, the rise of Octavian, and the eventual creation of the Empire, which was a monarchy in all but name. So I guess if Senator Cruz and his ilk have their way, at least we have a coronation to look forward to.