In this episode of Two Friends Talk History, I interviewed Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of St Andrews, and founder of the Visualising War and Peace Project, Dr Alice König. In this interview, I asked Alice about ideas of representing war in antiquity, and if a concept like a ‘peace movement’ was possible in a period of Roman Imperium. We discuss the absences in war narratives, and war’s impacts on women and children, and then turn our attention to the podcast series that Dr König and Dr Nicolas Wiater, launched in 2021, the Visualising War and Peace podcast. The Visualsing War and Peace podcast has over 60 episodes and seeks to present listeners with cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives on how war and peace were visualised in the past and how new narratives these established frameworks are seeking to disrupt the ways we talk about, teach and reproduce conflicts.
We also discuss the upcoming exhibition Alice has organised with the artist, Diana Forster, opening May 25th at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, ‘Somewhere to Stay’. The exhibition focuses on the forced migration experienced by Diana’s mother, a young Polish woman, during WWII. To hear Diana’s episodes, you can listen to Art and War with Diana Forster or Visualising Forced Migration Through History.
We also discussed the upcoming exhibition collaboration with Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, titled ‘Picturing Peace in the Congo‘. If you would like to learn more, the exhibition is linked here.
You can get in touch with Dr Konig at the University of St Andrews and her work on the Visualising War and Peace project here. Alice is also on Twitter @KonigAlice or @VisualisingWar. You can also follow the project on Facebook and Instagram, and there is an excellent blog series that you can follow through the project website.
For links to show topics: On the appropriation of Classics topics/symbols etc by alt-right groups, helpful scholarship can be read here on Pharos’ website: https://pharos.vassarspaces.net/
In this week’s episode of Two Friends Talk History, Zofia is joined by Dr Sam Ellis, a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair of Ancient History in the University of Mannheim where his project focuses on the use of language to legitimise political power in the Greek polis. Sam is an expert in the language of tyranny in antiquity and the study of monocratic power in the Greek polis from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period.
In this episode, we explore how the language used to frame the actions of sole rulers has created a construct of ‘tyrant’ that remains with us today.
Greek attitudes towards tyranny are the topic of this week’s podcast. It may surprise listeners to hear that these attitudes changed over time; from the early stages of the Greek polis (the city-state), the ruling aristocracy ruled as a group over the citizen body, with the eventual rise of some aristocrats into positions of sole-rulership in the mid-7th century BCE.
These early sole-rulers tended to have popular political support and were generally viewed favourably among the citizens.
We discuss the Peisistratids of Athens in the podcast, one such family, whose founder, Peisistratus, was popularly received by the people for setting up law courts and investing funds into public projects like water fountains and religious buildings. The charismatic leadership of a sole-ruler could spur a relationship of political control through public support that rewarded the ruler with many types of honours. As we discuss, these types of relationships were precarious and could turn into tyrannicide, as was the case of the assassination of Peisistratus’ son, Hipparchus (brother of the sole-ruler, Hippias). The assassination was carried out by Harmodius and Aristogeiton and remained a famous story replicated across visual media for centuries afterwards.
The Syriskos Painter’s stamnos, ‘Death of the tyrant Hipparchus’, 475-470 BCE (and illustration of actions); Roman copy of Aristogeiton and Harmodius sculpture.
The inspiration for the episode art was the sculptural pair of tyrannicides, originally commissioned by Antenor after the establishment of Athenian democracy. It was taken as war booty during the Persian Wars in 480 BCE, then returned after the fall of the Persian Empire by one of Alexander’s generals-turned-king. The sculpture was so famous that it inspired Roman copies, of which several survive; the most famous of which is in the National Archaeological museum of Naples.
To learn more about the language, metaphors and stereotypes of ancient tyranny, check out the episode here:
You can get in touch with Dr Ellis on the Universität Mannheim website here, or you can follow him on Academia.edu. Sam is also on Instagram & Twitter @SamEllis1993. Seriously, check out his Instagram. The photos are stunning.
If you would like to check out some of Dr Ellis’ publications:
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). ‘Legitimising sole power in the Greek polis: A New Institutionalist approach’ in M. Canevaro & M. Barbato (eds.) New Institutionalism and Greek Institutions, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ellis, S. (2021). ‘Greek Conceptualisations of Persian Traditions – Gift-giving and Friendship in the Persian Empire’, Classical Quarterly 71.1,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 77–88.
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). Review of C. de Lisle (2021). Agathokles of Syracuse: Sicilian Tyrant and Hellenistic King. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
For further reading:
Brock, R. (2013). Greek Political Imagery: From Homer to Aristotle. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Luraghi, N. (2013). The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.
Börm, H. (ed.). (2015). Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
This week on Two Friends Talk History, I spoke with Dr Maxime Ratcliffe, hot off the press with his recently awarded doctorate, to discuss Romano-British well depositions, and the tantalising mysteries that were buried within them. We explore their persistence in the British landscape, and their possible uses in antiquity.
Dr Ratcliffe’s thesis analysed the social history and topographical significance of the locations where the lead tanks were discovered – and continue to be discovered! They are surprisingly prolific in Britain, and quite unique as a collective practice; only four decorated lead tanks of similar form have been found elsewhere within the region contained by the Roman Empire: three were found in Italy and one in Switzerland (Crerar 2012).
Top left: Cavensham lead tank; bottom left: reconstruction; right: Mithraeum from Wallbrook – well in top left corner.
Scholarship in the 1970s suggested these lead tanks be considered as early Christian baptisms (Toynbee 1964). In Crerar’s 2012 article, she noted that they were commonly analysed as Romano-British art and religious practices, but “few scholars have recognised that their design and potential use make them worthy of separate and more detailed consideration”…which is where Dr Ratcliffe joined the investigation. The areas that had previously received little attention – how the tanks were used, how they were destroyed, what was found contextually with them and how they might have been viewed by Roman-British society- are all aspects of Maxime’s study into the elusive tanks.
2. List of locations where lead tanks were found as of 2012 (Crerar).
If you would like to learn more about the Ashton tank, which was featured for the podcast cover art, this article is free and accessible. Reading Museum’s online catalogue gives a nice reconstruction of the crushed lead tank from the well at Dean’s Farm in Caversham (1988): Click Here.
If you would like to get in touch with Dr Ratcliffe on the Durham University Archaeology department website here, or you can follow him on Academia.edu.
While we wait excitedly for Dr Ratcliffe’s work to be made public, a useful introduction to the lead tanks (baptismal fonts) of Romano-Britain can be found in Crerar, B. (2012). Her article, “Contextualising Romano-British Lead Tanks: A Study in Design, Destruction and Deposition” in Britannia,43, 135-166 was an interesting read and had excellent visualisations.
Thank you for tuning in to Two Friends Talk History and checking out this blog!
This week on Two Friends Talk History, I interview returning guest, Alex Slucky. Alex is an archaeologist with Atkins and archaeobotanist, whose work has taken her to Italy, Australia and most recently in Uzbekistan. Alex discusses her work in the ancient city of Bukhara which was a prominent stop on the so-called Silk Road trade route that linked East and West. We discuss vessels as material culture, and embodied archaeological processes of alcohol consumption.
To get in touch and find out more about Two Friends Talk History: Find us on Instagram Support us through Patreon Buy our merch onRedbubble Explore more resources and topics about the ancient world on ArchaeoArtist
Thank you for reading. See you soon with new friends on Two Friends!
This week on Two Friends Talk History, Zofia interviews Dr Elke Close about Polybius, an Achaean statesman, teacher, and historian from the Hellenistic period. Polybius was active in Megalopolis at the tail end of the period of Greek independence following the wars of the Hellenistic kings and the rise of the Roman empire. His surviving text, Histories, has provided scholars with unparalleled evidence for the social and political changes that led to the changing balance of power in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE.
From the introduction of Polybius’ Histories, we are told of the weight and significance of his treatise for readers to understand the rise to power of Rome, while synthesising the events more broadly around the Mediterranean.
But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for political actions is the study of History.
His aims are outlined, and through his unique position as Achaean statesman and hostage in Rome, Polybius had intimate access as a teacher and client to one of the most powerful Roman families, the Cornelii Scipiones. Due to his proximity to power and usefulness, Polybius rode shotgun on several watershed moments of the Republic.
This week on Two Friends Talk History, I was joined by expert in the field of Roman history and Classics public engagement powerhouse, Dr Alex Imrie. Dr Imrie’s doctoral thesis concerned the Constitutio Antoniniana (Antonine Constitution), the edict of mass enfranchisement promulgated by the infamously violent emperor Caracalla, and is a self-described Dio nerd. Dr Imrie is a Tutor in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and the National Outreach Co-ordinator for the Classical Association of Scotland. The CAS has been spearheading free and accessible learning for true beginners to the topic of Classics, and Dr Imrie brings together talented and interesting new scholars to share their experience and time with the public.
Last year, Dr Imrie and I collaborated on a seminar hosted by the Classical Association of Scotland called, Artistic Responses to Antiquity. We organised this event to host discussions from several artists based in the UK who worked in various mediums to create art inspired by the ancient world. Presenters included Dr Briana King (University of St Andrews), myself, Zofia Guertin (PhD Candidate – University of St Andrews) @ZofiaAstrid, Dr Maria Haley (University of Leeds/University of Manchester) @marianuncsum, and Flora Kirk (MA, University of Durham) @flaroh. The diversity of backgrounds and approaches was really exciting to see. The seminar opened with a discussion of ancient styles and techniques in art, then on to Classical Reception and its ongoing relevance to the modern world. As Dr Imrie and I discuss in the podcast, the final session of the seminar involved thirty or so scholars, interested members of the public, and even some wee ones! The turn out was fabulous, and the art that our attendees created in session three was really fun.
Several months ago, we reconnected to record an episode of TFTH, and dive into the tumultuous history of the Severan dynasty. Admittedly, I was not as familiar with the political and military side of their reign, and it was fascinating to hear about the game of whack-a-mole among generals that eventually led to Septimius Severus taking control of the Empire from 193-211 CE.
Our conversation follows the ups and downs of the imperial familial relationships, particularly the crucial turning points between Caracalla and Geta who were also very keen to exterminate one another. Dr Imrie brings humour and humanity to Caracalla and his family, an emperor that is typically lumped into the ‘bad emperor’ category, and offers a more nuanced reading of these individuals. It was a joy to record, and I hope you take a listen!
If you would like to hear more from Dr Imrie, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter @AlexImrie23 or edinburgh.academia.edu/AlexImrie. In the interview, we discuss his publication on Caracalla’s supposed use of the Macedonian phalanx, which you can read more about HERE.
To find out more about the CAS and register for upcoming 2023 programmes, please check out their website: https://cas.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. The upcoming seminars include Greek, Latin and Egyptian Hieroglyphics taught online.
In this week’s episode of Two Friends Talk History, I have the great privilege of interviewing heritage heroes, Makis and Hettie Metaxas from Poros, Kefalonia; two very dear people I met in 2008 while excavating at the ancient necropolis of Pronnoi as an undergraduate. Makis served many years as mayor of Poros, in southeastern Kefalonia, and the mayor of Kefalonia, and continues his passion for monument preservation as the President of the Prehistoric Studies of Kefalonia Society – the perfect role for the man who discovered of the famed Tzannata tholos tomb over thirty years ago.
Henriëtte Metaxas-Putman Cramer, is equally passionate about the conservation and heritage promotion of the island, and even wrote the go-to Travel Guide (now in 8 languages!) for visiting Kefalonia, has worked across many types of media promoting the island and its archaeological sites. After living and working in Poros for several decades, she saw a need to create a guide to the island which brought the richer details of her experience to light for visitors.
Speaking over Zoom this spring, we caught up after ten years since meeting on excavation in the necropolis of ancient Pronnoi. We discussed the exciting discovery of the largest known tholos tomb in the Ionian sea, the responsibility of heritage preservation and conservation, and their hopes for the future. For our full discussion you can listen here:
Making news on June 11, 2021, after many years or public outreach, fundraising and conservation advocacy, the Metaxas’ and their colleagues celebrated the news that the Greek government confirmed the scheme to build a gabled, protective roof and access for the archaeological site around the tholos tomb. The roof and maintenance will be funded by the Prehistoric Studies of Kefalonia Society according to Stavros P. Travlos, the Deputy Regional Governor of Kefalonia and Ithaca. This welcome news means the much needed conservation work will finally happen for the monument, and bring with it considered infrastructure of tourists to safely visit the site. This work will also raise awareness of Kefalonia’s place Bronze Age Mediterranean history, through it’s position as one of the nodes in the network of regional kingdoms for the period.
What is the Tzannata Tomb? In the Mycenean period, elites burried their dead in large beehive shpaed tombs. The Tzannata tholos tomb measures 6.8 m in diameter to a maximum heigh of nearly 4m, making it the largest known tomb to date in the Ionian Sea. Inside the tholos – uniquely – were the burials underground, over generations, stacked on top of one another and from DNA testing, believed to be a related kin group.
It is believed that this monument’s erection was linked to an emergence of a powerful local elite in southern Kefalonia, in the Mycenaean period, that used shared burial practices of the mainland. With the discovery of this tholos tomb some thirty years ago, it opened up many questions about the orientation of powers among the island’s elite, it has remained of interest to the local community and international researchers alike, hoping to answer questions about the Bronze Age centres of power in the Mediterranean and how Kefalonia and Ithaka fit into the landscape of Mycenaean palace culture in the period.
For more information you can follow Hettie and Makis on Facebook groups Discover Kefalonia and Ithaki and their website Homeric Ithaca. They are regularly updating their pages with new and wonderful things going on in Kefalonia, highlighting a truly magical island.
In this week’s podcast on exploring plagues in the late Medieval period with Dr Alex Lee, “The Bianchi Plague Processions of 1399”, she offered an exciting perspective on religious expressions in response to plague. Alex provided details about the historical context and the religious symbolism to help explain the reasons why Italian communities dealing with the huge impacts of the plague of 1399-1400, gathered together in groups and processed from city to city across Tuscany and how their local governments work out the logistics to facilitate these religious expressions and maintain order.
Thinking about plagues from the ancient world and their impacts is something I’ve considered a lot since starting a podcast. After choosing a variety of topics and individuals to discuss, it has surprised me how frequently I’ve seen connections back to the Antonine Plague. There were many types of cures and prayers used in antiquity to deal with plague, which Liam and I discussed in our first episode, “Plagues and Pandemics“, looking at the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century CE and the cult of Glycon from Abōnóteichos (later Ionopolis), in Asia Minor. This mystery-healing cult gained prominence due to its ritual healing prescriptions and the charismatic leadership of Alexander Abōnóteichos.
Alexander mixed various traditions into his cult: he said a snake would be born of an egg in the foundations of the temple of Asclepius in Abōnóteichos, and then when it spoke, the voice and prophecy would be directly from the god. He would interpret the Harry Potter-style parcel-tongue utterances and give out cures for healing, political advice, oracles and more. For many centuries before, snake cults were intimately associated with the healing gods from Apollo, Asclepius and Hygiea, to Isis and Serapis! This new popular religious cult gave its founder influence within the ranks of the elite of Roman provincial administrators, his daughter even married the governor of the Roman province of Asia.
As the outbreak of plague swept the Roman Empire around 160 CE , desperate people sought all types of cures and protective charms; those included visits to Glycon, whose interpreters issued a little prayer: “shorn Phoebus, keep away the cloud of plague” which people have been found in the archaeological record carrying on their person (in burial) and inscribed on doorways. Christian writers in the period were incredibly sceptical and condemned Alexander and his cult as charlatans. One unexpected outcome of the religious prescriptions to the plague was that it made those who had the magic words on their person, or above their house door, more confident and less likely to stay away from crowds or those with illness, since they believed they were under the protection of Apollo through Glycon. Thus, according to Christian writers, his adherent’s were the most likely to die and also prove their case that their god was the right one.
The foundation story of the Bianchi movement has a few sources, but one is the the ‘tre pani’ story, discussed in greater depth here on Dr Lee’s website, taken from the account of Luca Dominici, a chronicler from Pisotia. In the story, a labourer is working minding his own business when an elite looking fellow (Jesus) shows up and asks for food which the labourer does not have. Miraculously, Jesus has him open his jacket to find- lo! bread! Jesus then asks the labourer (witness) to moisten the bread with water, which again, is not available but with some cajoling, the man go out looking for a fountain which was previously not there, to find a white-robed woman (the Virgin Mary) trying to convince him to not dip the bread. The labourer is ping-ponged between the two for a bit then ultimately does dip the bread, which spreads the pestilence. It seems like entrapment since the poor man didn’t know who they were and was just following hospitality norms but hey ho. The plague is released, but why? Effectively, the pestilences that humanity faced in this period were because Jesus was angry about the high levels of sinning, so decided to destroy mankind. Seems fair.
To remedy this pestilence, the Virgin suggests a white-robed procession for nine days between cities, walking barefoot, not sleeping within walled towns, singing laude, and fasting from meats and nice things 6 days a week and only water and bread on Sunday. Though as Dr Lee investigated, there were many food rules for each community and could be some significant variance as to what was not allowed and what was freely given to those on procession.
The communities of Tuscany had survived successive periods of plague, and those wishing to organise Bianchi processions could rely on existing infrastructure and guidance from civic officials and religious leaders to facilitate these processions. What was striking about discussing this medieval plague is the way the community came together and supported one another throughout this societal crisis to really inclusive worship. As we discuss, it had elevated performative aspects which were quite proscriptive and, as Dr Lee argues, likely no small degree of peer pressure to participate.
Do check out the episode for many more exciting details, and to find out more, I strongly encourage interested readers/listeners to read Dr Alex Lee’s forthcoming book, “The Bianchi of 1399 in Central Italy: Making Devotion Local“, and visit her website Bianchi 1399.wordpress.com! You can also get in touch via Twitter @AlexRALee.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to talk about five powerful, clever and resilient female leaders in antiquity: Apama, Cleopatra II, Fulvia, Regilla and Zenobia.
When looking at women in the ancient world, it’s important to recognise they had significant hurdles to exercising power in public spaces. It was generally oriented from the perspective, as Sarah Pomeroy writes, that “the private preceded the public: when public roles existed, they developed from family relationships.” So strategic marriages, powerful parents and acting as regent for future rulers offered elite women many opportunities to exercise more authority than any other women in society at many points throughout history. By acknowledging that their pathways to power lay through their bonds to family relationships is not to say they lacked agency or diminish their accomplishments, but simply to contextualise the perspective through which power flowed. The five fierce females I’ve picked took power for themselves by hook or crook and were forces to be reckoned with, facing the triumphs and tragedies they were dealt.
1. Apama, the first Queen of the Seleucid Empire (4th century BCE)
Though there is not much written about Apama, I include her first on my list because she came into power from a politically disadvantageous position and ended up having three cities named after her and was key to the founding of the Seleucid dynasty of Asia Minor!
Apama was born into a high-ranking family in the Sogdian region of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BCE. Apama’s father, Spitamenes, was a powerful military leader who successfully led armed resistance against Alexander the Great. Spitamenes was murdered in Bactria by local clans wishing to sue for peace with the Macedonian army. It is unknown what transpired following this – with the elite women of Spitamenes’ family or other Sogdian elites – but four years later, Apama was married to Alexander’s top-tier Companion, Seleucus, at the Great Wedding of Susa. This was a mass marriage between Iranian noblewomen and the higher status Macedonian military, orchestrated by Alexander.
It is impossible to know what the women thought of this, since their voices are entirely absent from the record, and they were effectively high-status captives being married to an enemy army to cement their new political reality. Perhaps the elite women of Sogdiana were kept in relative protection like the captive women of Persian King Darius’ household (Diod. 17.37.5-38, Curt. 3.12.15-26). Given the brutal circumstances of her father’s death, it’s unlikely this was a comfortable period of her life, however, she would climb to the highest position possible in the new empire that Alexander was carving into Asia Minor.
Apama was the only wife we know of from these unions who was not abandoned after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. It is very likely that she was a formidable person. Surviving and navigating the wars between the Macedonians in the Achaemenid territories, the wars of the Successors (Alexander’s Companions) and carving out an empire with her husband across the largest and most ethnically diverse of all the territories was surely no easy feat. Seleucus took control of the conquered eastern empire and managed to hold it through the twists and turns of alliances, marriages and wars in the 20 years that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.
Her familial and cultural connections were likely assets to Seleucus holding this territory in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death. Apama spoke the languages and understood all the court customs. Over nearly 30 years Apama and Seleucus raised three children, who were part of dynastic marriages themselves, and continued the dynasty they founded. Apama disappeared from the record around the time Seleucus took another wife, Stratonice, a princess of the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia. Romantics suggest that it was only after Apama’s death that Seleucus remarried again, and only for political gain. This is suggested since Seleucus allowed his son and heir to marry Stratonice when it became evident that they had a romance of their own.
2. Cleopatra II, Queen of Egypt (2nd century BCE)
It is always tricky talking about the Ptolemies. They all shared similar names and were constantly fighting and making alliances with one another. Also, check out the episode ‘Dysfunctional Families‘ on Two Friends Talk History in series 1, if you’re curious to hear more. Of the Cleopatra’s in this dynasty, I think the famous though lesser-known Cleopatra II was a powerful queen who was dealt a difficult hand but gave as good as she got.
Cleopatra II was born (pre-145 BCE) into a period of war and instability, with two brothers who were frequently at odds with one another. This triad was a pretty dysfunctional, which I talked about in my podcast on their A+ level sibling rivalries. Early in the reign of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic kingdom was involved in a series of ongoing wars with the Seleucid Empire, which at this point numbered six (170-168 BCE).
Cleopatra II was married first to her brother, the Ptolemy VI Philometor (mother-loving) in 175 BCE. They ruled well together and had several children, though they were essentially always at war with their younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon (fatty). After the death of Philometor, Physcon to wrestle the throne from her which led to a civil war. While she had the stewardship of the kingdom, Cleopatra had been popular with the people, but their warring left her in a dangerous position. To protect her children from her first marriage she agreed to a political union and peace. They were married after 145 BCE and it was pretty rocky, with Game of Thrones levels of twists and turns.
Typically, writers characterise the breakdown of their marriage as some type of jealousy between mother and daughter. I would strongly disagree. After the birth of their son, and Ptolemy VIII’s legitimate heir, he began a relationship with his teenage daughter-in-law, Cleopatra III. Things spiralled into another civil war once Ptolemy also married his wife’s daughter in secret. Cleopatra II raised and army and tried to have her husband killed; Ptolemy VIII fled with his new bride and the children of his sister-wife. Like something out of a True Crime podcast, to punish his sister-wife he had his nephew and next in line for the throne murdered and sent to his estranged wife on her birthday. Obviously, Cleopatra II wasn’t going to take this lying down, and continued to rule from Egypt alone while her exiled husband and daughter ruled from Cyprus from 132 – 124 BCE. This tore the country apart and weakened the empire. Eventually, the three monarchs were forced into a reconciliation, and they reigned together until his death. All. Three. Together.
Cleopatra II had a pretty nightmarish existence by modern standards, but what is fascinating is that through her leadership and strength she gained enough support from the Egyptian people to have them side with her time and again against her brother and managed to rule alone for over a decade. It was very unusual for a queen to manoeuvre a king out of power and hold on to it.
3. Fulvia, The First Lady of Republican Populists (1st century BCE)
This Roman matriarch was a total boss. Criticised for her ambition, publicity and cleverness, Fulvia loyally supported – some suggest manipulated – the statecraft of the Roman Republic. The sign of an interesting woman, Fulvia was maligned by Roman historians and writers as “having nothing womanly about her except her body” (Vell.Pat. 2.74.2). Fulvia was a wealthy and well-connected noblewoman and though constrained by the norms of her day, she was active in politics, commanded the loyalties of street gangs and armies in the Late Republic. Through her three marriages to several of the most powerful and popular Roman political leaders of the first century BCE, Fulvia even went to war against the future Augustus – her son in law! Fulvia is definitely one of my all-time favourites.
Fulvia’s rise to fame was established through her first two marriages to Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Scribonius Curio. Both marriages were cut short by their violent deaths, Clodius by political murder and Curio through military action in Africa. It was her marriage to Clodius that cemented her in the A-list of elite Roman women; Clodius was a massively influential populist leader of the Populares faction (leader of the Plebians). He mobilised gangs and incited violence to suit his causes, seriously aggravating the conservative elite (Optimates) faction, which led to his murder. Fulvia, politically savvy from the start, used her position as the mourning wife of a famous man to show how devoted she was and how his name lived on through her. Every future connection she made drew on the persona she cultivated in the wake of Clodius’ death – that of the dutiful and noble wife. By the time of her third marriage, to Marcus Antonius, she was stratospherically powerful. According to Cassius Dio, Fulvia controlled the politics of Rome through her financial and personal influence on senators and the public.
In the wake of Caesar’s death and Octavian’s ascension into Roman politics, he and Marcus Antoinus and Lepidus formed a second Triumvirate. This alliance was cemented through his marriage to Fulvia’s daughter (Marcus Antonius’ stepdaughter), Claudia. This went south relatively soon after which relations between Octavian and Antonius soured by 41 BCE. Fulvia spoke to senators on behalf of her husband and then raised an army to defend her family’s interests while Marcus was abroad. She worked with Marcus’ brother Lucius to raise eight legions against Octavian to protect her husband’s interests where she felt he was being side-lined. This brought Fulvia and Octavian to war in 41 BCE, called the Perusine War.
Fulvia and Lucius Antonious’ army occupied Rome briefly, though eventually they were forced to take refuge in Perusia. Marcus appeared to be unaware of the conflict, accused in poetry, of all places, of being too busy with affairs in Cappadocia (with Glaphyra) to resolve his wife’s jealousy. The poem is racy but worth having a look (Martial 11.20). Things did not go Fulvia’s way and she had to flee to Greece, where, apparently, Marcus rebuked and abandoned her. Fulvia died soon after in exile in Greece, and the newly reconciled Octavian and Marcus blamed the whole thing on Fulvia. Her legacy lived on in the children she bore in each marriage, and in infamy, as she became the counterpoint to what a “good Roman wife” should be. Appian blames her weakness and jealousy as the cause of the war (B.Civ 5.3.19). From antiquity onwards, Fulvia has drawn the short straw when compared to Octavia (Octavian’s sister and Marcus’ next wife), however I think there is a lot to learn from Fulvia’s reach and impact on the politics of the time. Even though she was not technically allowed to participate, she left her mark and remains one of the few powerful women of the past we know a great deal about.
4. Regilla, Patroness in Greece 2nd century CE
Appia Annia Regilla was born in 125 CE into a wealthy family with significant influence as relatives of the Roman Empress Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius. Regilla was 14 years old when she was married to the richest man in Greece, Herodes Atticus, who was 40 years her senior. This was a fairly typical age differential among the elite, whereas the lower classes typically married much closer in age. Herodes served under Hadrian as a prefect of the Province of Asia, then tutored Antoninus Pius’ adoptive sons, the future Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
When the couple resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of Greek elites and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). This priestess position allowed Regilla the unique honour of being the only woman present at the Olympic Games in 153 CE. From her own funds Regilla dedicated a monumental fountain (nymphaeum) in Olympia with a bull statue in her own name and decorated the fountain with statues of the Antonines and her own family. Herodes commissioned an aqueduct to channel water into this fountain.
Regilla commissioned many architectural works that highlighted her family (she had four children with Herodes) and their links to the ruling imperial family in Rome. It was not commonly the case that women would dedicate benefactions in their own names; more frequently these dedications would be in the names of their family or alongside a male relative. Regilla seemed to have her own interests in doing things for herself, acutely acting by her own agency to leave her mark. It’s fortunate she did. In 160 CE, while heavily pregnant, she was murdered by her husband or a member of his household. Her family brought suit against Herodes, as there was no doubt it was not an accident. Marcus Aurelius stepped in and prevented his former teacher’s prosecution and that was the end of it. The following year Herodes dedicated the spectacular Odeon of Athens in memory of his wife, in 161 CE, which still stands today at the foot of the Acropolis. Herodes spent the rest of his life building monuments, giving expensive gifts to religious organisations and inscribing surfaces with professions of his never-ending grief for the loss of his wife. To see photos of the buildings and decorations Herodes and Regilla sponsored, you can check out my post here on Herodes Atticus!
5. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra
Zenobia was the next in a line of scary eastern queens that shook the Romans in their sandals. Zenobia led a revolt against the Romans from Palmyra which spread into Egypt and Asia Minor and led to war.
Zenobia was married to the Palmyrene chieftain Septimius Odenathus, a client king of the Romans, who was subsequently murdered in 267 CE. Odenathus had kept the eastern Roman provinces together against the threat of the Sassanians, once he died, Zenobia continued this policy and remained loyal to Rome. This change in relationship status allowed her to be the sole ruler while acting as regent for her young son. Once in control of her own court and interests, Zenobia seems to have been a patroness of the arts and literature, creating a court of intellectuals and beacon of culture. Fluent in several languages, Zenobia learned Greek and was given a History of Alexandria by Callinicus. It is not hard to imagine that she was visualising herself as a new Cleopatra VII, since the Romans were certainly projecting that on to her at the time.
When the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus died in 270 CE, Zenobia took the opportunity to revolt against the Empire. Emperor Aurelian fought the armies of Zenobia at Antioch and Emesa, then put down her supporters’ rebellions in Egypt.
Aurelian defeated the queen and took her hostage back to Rome. Achieving one symbolic victory over a foreign eastern queen that was denied the Romans when, instead of capturing Cleopatra VII she took her own life in Alexandria, Aurelian paraded the captured queen in a triumph in 274 CE. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta, a problematic source document but cited none the less, the text also suggests that the queen was retired to an estate on the Tibur. Aurelian is said to have praised her intelligence, military acumen and beauty, praising her as a worthy adversary.
What About Other Women?
The daily lives of women in the Roman world are often characterised as within the home. For women of elite social status, that was in a large part accurate, though not the entire story. From wealthy households, low-income families or the enslaved, women in the Roman Empire were skilled in a broad array of professions which might surprise you.
As now, not everyone could be a homeowner or afford staff, fine objects or even decorations of any kind. Those who could afford a home (domus) would use it as part of how they communicated their status to the outside world. A well-off family might display portraits of ancestors (women and men) in the central hall of their domus, in the atrium. How a matriarch ran an elite home involved many staff and servants, and she might have had to do so alone for many years while her husband was away on campaigns, or in advantageous political posts. The matriarch would have been in charge of assets, correspondences, keeping clients connected to their patron and so on. The nuance of ‘a wife’s work’ in this context really extended into areas like accountant, personal administrator, event planner and social networker. The house staff might include cooks, laundresses, gardeners, pastry chefs, spinners and weavers, hairdressers, butchers, cleaners, waiting staff, artists and artisans – if they were having mosaics installed said atrium or maybe a fresco painted on the wall- and the list could go on. Many of these jobs could be performed by women, and this is only a small fraction of the types of employment if you were a freeperson. Enslaved women might do many of these jobs as well.
In antiquity as ever, having educated or skilled daughters was a means to greater financial stability for the family and into their own adulthood or marriage later on. If a woman came from a family in the trades, it stands to reason she would participate in some way within that trade, and thus her knowledge and expertise would increase her desirability as a partner. Pliny the Elder mentions female painters in The Natural History, who were paid and perceived favourably to their male counterparts. He lists several women whose fathers trained them in the arts: Timarete, daughter of Micon was renowned for her panel painting; Irene daughter of Cratinus (a painter), painted mythical characters and daily life scenes; Aristarete, daughter of Nearchus, painted the god Aesculapius. He notes Iaia of Cyzicus remained single but was a prolific painter of women’s portraits, whose talent and expedition were unmatched; Pliny says she was even paid more than well-known male painters whose works filled galleries (HN 35.40.83-87).
With these professional pathways for women in the ancient world in mind, I have created a series of colouring sheets with an activity related to the characters from Vita Romana! If you’d like to explore the different roles of women in the Roman period.
Milnor, K. (2011). ‘Women in Roman Society’. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, 2011-02-01, Vol.1. Oxford University Press.
Pomeroy, S. (2009). The Murder of Regilla : A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rowlandson, J. (1998). Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt : A sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitehorne, J. (1994). Cleopatras /, London; New York: Routledge.
In this NSFW blogpost, I discuss sex in ancient history.
This week, I am launching series 2 of Two Friends Talk History with its new format! My guest is Dr Briana King, a good friend and frequent travel companion with whom I discuss sex in the ancient world. Our conversation took many tantalising turns, one of which was the way that erotic objects were presented in the ancient world. You can find the episode here:
Effectively, any surface could be decorated with erotic art and the meanings behind it were not limited to arousal. The idea of hanging a phallic wind chime outside your front door, decorating store-fronts with priapic imagery or giving a child the gift of a protective phallus necklace might seem strange now, but the phallocentric worlds experienced in the past were comfortable with nudity to a greater degree and had imbued it with many layers of meaning. Several types of domestic and dedicatory objects that represent the manifest desire for good luck and abundance in the ancient world, have the power to make modern audiences squirm.
The prevalence of erotic imagery in the ancient world was common among the Greeks and Romans, though explored differently. Greek art depicting sexual activity and erotic scenes did feature selectively on painted pottery, with evidence suggesting they were only around for a relatively short period of time. Hermae were large sculptural rectangular plinths with a large phallus on the front, topped with a bust of a god or man, and considered protective. To destroy one was a sacrilege and a real existential threat to the city-state. As Thucydides recounted, just prior to the departure of the Athenian navy to Sicily in 415 BCE, many heads of the hermae were vandalised, and since they were viewed as divine protection from evil (like the evil eye) and placed liberally throughout cities at crossroads, this was viewed as an attack on the wellbeing of the city. Alcibiades was accused by his political rivals and had to flee the city for his life (Thuc.6.27). Cities throughout the Greek world used these phallic symbols of protection which were eventually adopted by the Romans.
Perhaps even more liberally, stimulating visual symbols populated Roman public spaces, private homes and every type of material culture. Roman good luck symbols include delightful examples of erotic imagery. A whole collection of objects in the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples purposefully exhibits many of the erotic materials found within Pompeii and Herculaneum together in what was once a forbidden collection, only accessible by the wealthy and connected of the 18th century. The room was opened to the public as a permanent exhibition space in 2000. The collection inside has some truly outstanding examples of frescoes, metal work and sculpture grouped into thematic sections.
A large array of painted sexual acts were found in a brothel and bath complex in Pompeii and are now displayed in this exhibition space. The contexts of these images make understanding their viewership important. One can assume that erotic decoration in a brothel could serve as advertisements of services the sexworkers offered, material to get clients in the mood and so on. Whereas, the erotic paintings in the Suburban bath complex were used as decorations for clothing cubbies. Each place to store belongings had a different sex-act which ranged from partnerships of homosexual and heterosexual pairings to multiple partners and positions. It should be noted that the frescoes had been painted over at some point before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but it is unlikely that they had been covered for that long. The erotic bath complex art would have been for a broader viewership than the similar themed and sized frescoes in the brothel. Both men and women from all social classes used the public baths, though probably at different times of the day in most cases. Visitors to the baths could purchase gratification from sexworkers there as well, but it cannot be assumed that this was the primary purpose of those images. Humour, aid-memoires and many other culturally relevant possibilities could account for decorating a public bath changing room with graphic sexual images (Vout 2013, pp.13-14).
Out of doors, urban dwellers used erotic objects to decorate and protect their homes and businesses. A display in the Secret Cabinet of erotic tintinnabula. A tintinnabulum was a wind chime or group of bells, in this case, shaped like an ithyphallic (erect) figure or fascinum meant to represent the divine phallus. The magic phallic image embodies protective powers and curative magic, often worn as a necklace charm, or other portable object. The these wind chimes could take some pretty outrageous forms, more than a simple ithyphallic or priapic (an over-size engorged phallus) theme. I include a photo I took in the museum below, and my super family-friendly illustration.
While visiting this room, I have enjoyed the opportunity to sketch these objects on several occasions, partially because there are so many examples but also to listen to the chat going by while I would draw. My favourite visitors to the room were women in their 70s. They probably had the best jokes and canning themselves with laughter.
The complex and nuanced religious landscape of the ancient world included local, borrowed and transformed gods which influenced daily life and social behaviours (including erotic tastes!). The universally popular goddess, Aphrodite/Venus, was prolific all throughout the Graeco-Roman world with sanctuaries and cult sites in essentially every city. We are familiar with her and the associated attributes of her powers, and included with ‘civilised’ types of eroticism. Whereas, a popular but minor deity, Priapus, was another more rustic erotic god with a uniquely large phallus. In the cannon of Graeco-Roman art, ithyphallic images were associated with uncivilised erotic displays and wildness. Priapus (the son of Hermes, like Pan) was responsible for agricultural fertility, gardens and male genitalia and were some of the only examples of deities who were represented being sexually aroused.
The objects discussed fit into daily life of the ancients. Essentially, anyone with the financial means, could procure these objects and display them or wear them as they chose. There was nothing taboo about art that depicted nudity and eroticism. For modern viewers of these fleshy, vibrantly coloured frescoes and decorative bronzes, they may seem lusty or crude, whereas viewing statuary – even if it depicts violent erotic imagery – is seen as tasteful. This follows our inheritance of Enlightenment thinking that the statues from the ancient world were striped of their original colours, if any remained, to present a white polished version that never really existed. One needs to consider the nudity of statuary within this context of viewership. They too were fleshy, wearing popular fashions and bright colours. Though understood to be sacred representations, they were still incredibly beautiful and could be erotic as well. The famous story of the rape of the Aphrodite statue, the Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles, illustrates the incredible arousal these objects could create, when a visitor to the statue was so overtaken he pleasured himself then ended his own life for the shame of his actions (Plin. NH. 36.21-22; Pseudo-Lucian Amores 9-17).
Images depicting deities could blur the line of object and divine. Did frescoes of sex acts communicate bigger ideas or associations to audiences in the ancient world? Probably. Viewing art is never a passive experience, particularly when it can actively invite erotic responses from viewers!
The illustrations I have created for this episode will be available on my Redbubble shop, and behind the scenes extras including an extended podcast interview and downloadable goodies will be available on Patreon. Thank you for checking out my blog and do have a listen to the podcast episode, Sex in the ancient world! You may never think of the Spartans the same way again!
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