Alternative Great Women
This International Women’s Day, we would like to celebrate alternative historical women.
The Great Man Theory of History celebrates key figures as the driving forces of History. Most historians however, would see the majority of historical events and changes as a complex blend of longer term trends and individual motivations. As such any celebration of elite individuals as a representation of historical moments is flawed. However, the Great Man Theory of History is still popular. It is also very masculine and often straight, white, elite. It can normalise discourse which continues to privilege men and justifies their powerful positions today. It is important to celebrate key women from ancient history to balance out this narrative and challenge the status quo.
These five women played important roles, but are less well known. All deserve greater recognition of their importance and perhaps celebration of their achievements in a masculine world.
As well as Cleopatra, there’s also her daughter
Everyone knows about Cleopatra, but not about Cleopatra!
Obviously here, the first Cleopatra, is Cleopatra VII the lover of Caesar and Mark Anthony. The second is her daughter with Mark Antony, Cleopatra Selene II (or Cleopatra VIII), who also lived an interesting life.
After Anthony’s defeat, Selene was taken to Rome with her twin brother (Alexander Helios) and half-brother (Caeserion), and paraded in heavy gold chains. The children’s struggles to walk elicited sympathy from the crowd.
Augustus gave them to his elder sister Octavia (Anthony’s fourth wife) to bring up. After this Selene’s two brothers disappear from the historical record, presumably dying before reaching adulthood, possibly murdered.
When she came of age, she was married with some honour to Juba II, King of Numidia and Mauretania. Their reign was successful. They created a new city, Caesarea, which traded across the Mediterranean. She died peacefully at some point between 5 BCE and 17 CE. Her son Ptolemy ruled Mauritania until his untimely death at the hands of Caligula in 40 CE.
As well as Livia, there’s also Octavia
Livia, the wife of Augustus, is infamous as the intriguing woman at the heart of power. An exemplar who has inspired male historians in their portrayals of figures as varied as Theodora and Cixi. She was chillingly played by Sian Phillips in the BBC Adaptation of I, Claudius.
Octavia Minor was another interesting figure. The elder sister of Augustus, she was used by male relatives as a power broker to cement unions with other male politicians through marriage. Her uncle, Caesar proposed that she marry Pompey the Great, which never happened. During the civil war, her intervention may have stopped her first husband fighting against Caesar. Following her husband’s death, Augustus proposed she marry Mark Anthony (she was his fourth wife). She was a loyal spouse (unlike Anthony). Even after her husbands relationship with Cleopatra, she continued to be an important political advisor and negiotiator between the two sides. She organised provisions for Anthony’s wars against Persia. After he named himself and Cleopatra, gods and monarchs, Octavia moved to Rome.
In 35 BCE, Augustus honoured both her and his wife Livia, both being made free of male guardianship and given control of their own finances. She was also honoured with statues in Rome and became one of the first Roman women to be portrayed on coins.
She was the guardian of the children of Cleopatra and grandmother and great-grandmother of Caligula and Nero. She was made a goddess on her death.
As well as the Delphic Oracle, there’s also the Priestess of Menouthis
The Delphic Oracle is famous as as a female in an important religious position, but she was not the only woman in antiquity. Several females took leadership positions such as the sibyls. Literary and artistic evidence often presents men as religious leaders. This probably was a representation of prestige and patronage.
One notable female religious leader was the priestess in a small Isis temple in Menouthis which operated pot the outskirts of Alexandria in 480s CE. In his account of the destruction of the temple, Zachariah of Mytilene described how the priestess manages a healing complex. the wife of a rich pagan sleeps in the temple with the hope to have children. When the (male) Christian monks discover this, they mock the priestess and her propriety:
(jeering) at what went on at Menouthis, the impurities of all kinds and the lubricity of the priestess of Isis, affirming that she engaged in debauchery with anybody who wanted to, that she was no different to a prostitute who gives herself to the first man who comes along
Roger Pearse translation.
Then they attack the temple. The priestess watches the destruction of her religious idols and is herself carried in triumph to Alexandria. Even though the text attempts to paint a negative picture, the priestess composes herself with dignity.
The text is a difficult one to assess in terms of “historical truth” and as such its unclear if such a woman existed. However, there must have been such priestesses of Isis (and other gods) or else why would a Christian text mention her?
As well as Hypatia, there are other female mathematicians
Hypatia, the brilliant mathematician who was murdered by Christian monks has become a symbol for rationalism in the face of fundamentalism. She has inspired books and movies, although little is known about her.
She was not the only female mathematician working in Alexandria. Maria Dzielska (the biographer of Hypatia) has researched Greek mathematics and identified several women. For example, Olympiodorus, a commentator of Aristotle’s works, educated his daughter whose name is now unknown. She modelled herself on Hypatia, remaining celibate even after proposal by Proculus, another philosopher.
Aedesia was another key female figure of the pagan circle in Alexandria. Although possibly not a scholar of the level of Hypatia, Aedesia was an important intellectual with a knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, that she shared with her sons. One text praises her as a pagan holy women who was blessed with “many divine epiphanies”. She was well connected – a relative of the philosopher Syrianus of Alexander and Proclus himself turned her down in marriage. It could be implied she operated as a joining point of intellectuals in Alexandria.
Theodora was a student of Isidore, a philosopher and magician. She was herself a philosopher, pagan and an expert in poetry, grammar, geometry and higher arithmetics. Her main contribution to later scholarship was inspiring PH a major text about sixth century Alexandria.
The learned women of Alexandria of the fourth and fifth centuries (Hypatia, Aedesia, Theodora, and nameless others like Olympiodorus’ daughter) fulfilled their Hellenic mission and helped ensure that Platonic philosophical truths were saved.
As well as Boudica, there’s also Zenobia
Boudica has become the classical symbol of resistance to Roman power. Her story is still stirring nearly two thousand years later. Her daughters raped, she unites Celtic tribes of Britain and takes on the might of the Roman Industrial complex, burning two cities in the process.
Zenobia is slightly less well known today, although her association with Palmyra has raised her profile. She became de facto ruler of the powerful Palmyrene Empire following the death of her husband. This was an important trading state between Parthia (the Second Persian Empire) in the East and Rome in the West. The language of Palmrya was Aramaic, although Greek was also spoken. Zenobia herself may also have spoken Latin and Egyptian.
In 270 CE, she invaded the Roman Empire ruling from Central Anatolia to Southern Egypt and declaring herself Empress (in 272 CE). She was also a cultured monarch and her court was a place of intellectual patronage and religious tolerance welcoming Jews, Christians and Manichaeans.
Zenobia claimed descent from Cleopatra VII through Selene II, although most historians dispute this was likely. Christian authors of Late Antiquity identified her as Jewish (in order to discredit her), whilst medieval Arab historians linked her with the Queen of Sheba.
Her empire fell in 272, when she was captured by Roman forces. She was (most probably) paraded in triumph in Rome in 274 and may have been executed or allowed to settle in Rome.
Zenobia challenged both the might of Rome and its patriarchy. She remains a figure of great symbolic importance.
As this very short summary shows, women took on varied roles in the ancient world and the reason we don’t know as much about them as male roles is a result of the male focus in the ancient world and amongst many historians.
These are just five women of many we could have chosen from.
That said all but one of the women are from elite strata of their societies and we must recognise that these are not representative of the lived experience of all women of antiquity.
If you are interested in more, try Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves by Sarah Pomeroy.