William & Mary

W&M professor’s book looks at women’s roles in ancient Rome

  • Fresh perspective:
    Fresh perspective:  William & Mary Classical Studies Professor Vassiliki Panoussi’s new book "Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women's rituals in Roman Literature" explores the traditional, and not so traditional, ways that women held power in the patriarchal society of ancient Rome.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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What can a closer look at women’s roles in ancient Rome teach us today?

William & Mary Classical Studies Professor Vassiliki Panoussi’s new book explores the traditional, and not so traditional, ways that women held power in that patriarchal society. Johns Hopkins University Press will publish Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women's rituals in Roman Literature on June 4, calling it “the first large-scale analysis of this body of evidence from a feminist perspective.”

Continuing her study of women and gender in antiquity and in Greco-Roman religion, Panoussi expands on her 2009 work Greek Tragedy in Vergil's Aeneid: Ritual, Empire, and Intertext. Now Panoussi examines both poetry and prose of the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE to explore women's place in weddings, funerals, Bacchic rites and women-only rituals and what they tell us about the many ways women exercised influence, and even power.

From poems describing brides’ resistance to getting married, to the story of a former slave and prostitute helping to uncover a tremendous religious scandal, ancient literature provides many examples of the complexity of women’s influence on the society.

W&M News asked her to discuss a few of the book’s main points.

What is new here?

Roman women figure prominently in many works of Roman literature, but no one has really shed light into the intersection of gender, ideology and ritual in these stories. I thought this would be a good thing to do, and it would help explain the important roles women play in Latin texts.

The approach is new because it brings together these different perspectives, that of religion, feminism, and politics. It’s often hard for people to understand how what we do is new because the materials we study are very old and have been around for thousands of years. But they are a lot more complex and modern than we think.

Every generation of scholars is influenced by, obviously, the contemporary issues that are important to the society in which the scholar lives. And so each generation asks different questions of these texts. At the same time, the theoretical frameworks that are available to us through the advances in psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, religion, change too. All of these factors help us re-evaluate and reassess those really old texts.

So it is not surprising that someone would have questions about the agency of women when now more contemporary theoretical work on agency, as defined by feminism or relational sociology, makes us look differently at things that we thought we knew.

Why did you decide to study literature?

Women in ancient Rome didn’t really have official positions. Feminist scholarship has shown the many ways patriarchy worked in ancient Rome and in Roman literature. What I’m proposing is to move beyond that and look into the ways in which at least the literary texts show women able to exercise authority and power — and religion was one of those areas where women were able to do that.

The women in the texts that I studied exercise considerable agency and take on areas that are traditionally male. But they do so within the context of religious activity. For example, the princess Hypsipyle is able to rescue her father the king by performing a fake burial. She gets away with it, precisely because as a daughter she was responsible for burying her father. In the end, she becomes the ruler of her country.

I believe my contribution is that I show for the first time the ways in which women have been able to maintain or assert their agency, their identity, and to make their own contributions to the social fabric. And literature is a place where they can do that, whereas the historical record cannot always show us that.

What can we learn from this?

That women’s religious roles were a lot more important than people realize. And that literature can be an important factor in our understanding of that agency.

All of the texts that I examine in this book have long been studied. But I propose that only if we look at the combined frameworks of religion, agency and ideology, can we appreciate the magnitude of the empowerment that women claimed in ancient Rome.

For years, up until actually very recently, most historians of religion thought that Roman women had no significant roles even in religion. But one of the arguments I make is that in fact in the literature we have proof that this was not the case. Quite the contrary, women were not excluded from religious life, but were in fact vital players in this arena. I suggest a place and a way to look for female empowerment in Roman society.

Although what I say has implications for Roman society, the focus of my book is on the ways in which male authors manipulate female agency in order to talk about what they want to talk about, which is ideology, power, politics, identity, things like that.

What conclusions did you reach?

Women’s religious roles and rituals are linked to questions of power and state power in particular. So very often the actions of women in literature directly affect the public domain. Whether there’s a war and they show resistance to authority, whether they’re punished for their actions or they’re triumphant, whenever they venture into the public arena, it’s because they are clashing with power.

While they do that, they claim agency through their religious roles, as priestesses, as presiding over ceremonies, as wives or as mourners.

My work then focuses on women and other social groups that were not privileged, that were oppressed or obviously did not occupy the upper echelons of power. In this way, we can actually get a sense of their subjectivity, how they felt.  Even if many of these narratives show that women were eventually oppressed, their resistance or point of view is also recorded. And I think that is something that gives us an insight not only into how ideology works in Roman society, but also into how ideologies are shaped in our own society.