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What Did Women Think in the Roman Period?

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

By Renata Senna Garraffoni, Universidade Federal do Paraná.

Have you ever stopped to think that whenever people talk about the Roman Empire, people imagine soldiers and wars? Well, this is not for nothing. Modern historiography, developed from the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, a time of European territorial expansion, favored the study of the world of wars, politics and economics, places that women, in the view of these men, would rarely be present at. After all, very few had their actions registered in the sources, and not always in a favorable way.

In the 1960s, many scholars began to want to know more about the daily lives of ordinary people and their forms of struggle, going beyond the daily lives of outstanding generals or emperors. Then the picture of the Roman world begins to shift and become more plural. This attitude, together with the criticism from historians and archaeologists who started to work more in Western universities from the 1970s onwards, radically modifies studies on the Romans, opening up new fields of investigation, enabling, for example, the development of the History of Women in Antiquity.

I bring here an example from my most recent experience, inspired by these female scholars' questions. As I have always been interested in writing and language and knowing that the heyday of Latin writing is the Roman imperial period, when looking for what women thought and how they expressed themselves, I came across sources such as Amedeo Maiuri, superintendent of the Pompeii excavations for nearly four decades. In the early 1950s, for example, when analyzing two paintings from Pompeii in which women appear with writing instruments, he stated that one wrote, at most, love letters to the suitor and the other had an embarrassed expression for not knowing how to use the instrument. Historian Moses Finley, at the end of the 1960s, published, in Aspects of Antiquity, the essay The Silent Women of Rome in which he discusses the difficulty of studying women because they left practically no written accounts. What intrigued me in these publications was the denial of these women's ability to act, even in the face of the evidence. If there are few canonical records that have come down to us of female-authored texts, this does not mean that none would dominate the art of writing. After all, the fragments of Sappho and Sulpicia are known, just to mention a few examples, and material culture itself presents us with evidence that writing would also be present among women.

Fresco depicting a woman with writing instruments: calamus and wax tablet (Pompei, c. 50 CE Naples, National Archaeological Museum).

Scholars began to criticize these approaches after the 1980s. Joana Portela, for example, in her article Women's Scrolls in Classical Antiquity: cultural props or reading books? has already drawn attention to two corpora of documents still little explored by the classicists: the Attic red-figure vases, in the case of classical Greece, and the frescoes from Pompeii, in the case of Rome, which present many images of women portrayed next to scrolls and writing and reading material. On many of the scrolls, excerpts from poems are inscribed. If, as Portela considers, women were represented with the most noble writing instruments, it would therefore be necessary to invest in more studies in the area and discuss their symbolic and practical meanings. Even though we may consider that the universe of literacy in Antiquity was more restricted, it is important to point out that material culture presents records in which women were included among those who dominated the art of writing.

The studies of inscriptions can also give us some important clues. Just look at these graffiti on the wall found in Pompeii and translated by Lourdes Feitosa:

1. Amplexus teneros hac si quis quaerit in ur(be)

Expect(at ceras) nulla puella uiri (CIL IV 1796)

[Se alguém procura nessa cidade abraços amorosos,

saiba que nenhuma garota espera carta de homens]

[If anyone is looking for hugs in this city, know that no girl expects letters from men]

2. Suauis uinaria sitit rogo uos et ualde

Sitit Calpurnia tibi dicti. Val(e) (CIL IV 1819)

[Digo a você: desejo teu doce vinho e desejo muito.

Calpúrnia te diz. Saudações!]

[I say to you: I desire your sweet wine and I desire it very much. Calpurnia tells you. Greetings!]

3. Virum uendere nolo meom m(...) (CIL IV 3061)

[não vou vender meu homem...]

[I won't sell my man...]

4. Venus enim plagiaria est quia exsanguni meum

petit in uies tumultum pariet optet sibi ut

bene nauiget quod et Ario sua rogat. (CIL IV 1410)

[Vênus, efetivamente, é uma desencaminhadora porque deseja

aquele que é do meu próprio sangue, e provocará tumultos nos

caminhos; que ele escolha bem por si mesmo para navegar com êxito, o que também deseja sua amada Arione]

[Venus, effectively, is a mislead because it wants to he who is of my own blood, and will cause riots in the ways; may he choose well for himself to navigate successfully, which his beloved Arione also desires]

The first three examples were found on the walls of the Basilica of Pompeii and the fourth in the house of Hercules and can be attributed to women. In an analysis I made with Funari (“As vozes das mulheres no início do Principado Romano: Linguagem, discursos e escrita”), these graffiti caught our attention for different reasons. The first one makes us think about the fact that Pompeii is a city close to the sea, with heavy traffic of people from different places of origin, and warns men that, if you happen to get involved with local women, don't expect them to answer your letters, which in theory contradicts what Maiuri said!

The second speaks of desire: Calpurnia wants to share the wine and wants a lot. This issue of wine is quite interesting, as although many argue that women could not drink wine based on legislation and some texts, Marina Cavicchioli has argued that this idea does not hold when we look at material culture. In recent research, she has raised a lot of material evidence and has shown that there is a diversity of wines produced among the Romans and that the sweetest would be allowed for women. Therefore, when desiring the wine and the lover, this inscription reminds us of women's relationship with the pleasures of life, including alcoholic beverages that, until very recently, were believed to be something outside the feminine universe.

The third inscription, the most fragmented of all, may be of female authorship and indicates a relationship between mistress and slave or between lovers. Affirming it with certainty is difficult given its fragmentation, but it is noteworthy because the decision to sell can be attributed to a woman. The fourth and final graffiti, which may have been written by Arione, given her lover's doubts, would leave him free to decide his path. Venus, goddess of love, would have led him astray, so it remains for Arione to wish success in her journey. The interesting thing about this graffiti is that it was up to Arione to decide to withdraw from the relationship!

Therefore, we can think that both the paintings that represent women with writing instruments and these graffiti are signs that need to be observed. Some more skeptical scholars may argue that there is little evidence, but in fact this can become an incentive for more research in the field rather than a barrier! After all, all this material evidence indicates that these women had desires, they were not waiting for male action: within their contexts, even in the face of patriarchal norms, they acted and it is up to us to bring this to light.

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