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Celebrating the Contributions of Women from Ancient Greece & Rome

Amber Leenders, Student, Department of Classics, University of Manitoba

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women as well as discuss issues of gender inequality and oppression. It also connects us to the female caretakers, activists, and innovators of our past.

The Olympus exhibit is full of powerful, independent, and oftentimes wild and strange female divinities. But how did the average mortal Greek or Roman women participate in public life? Although Classical society was founded upon deeply ingrained patriarchal ideals, women were not always cloistered and silenced. They have left us with both literary and archaeological evidence of their contributions.

The ideal Athenian woman was faithful, industrious, and never left home, so as to protect her modesty. The exception to this rule was important religious events, where women often participated in or led rituals on behalf of their communities. Several Olympus artifacts in the form of votive stelae show women in this role of priestess and worshipper.

Stelae are stone panels with relief carvings that were set up inside a sanctuary to honour a certain divinity. One example, (pictured above) probably an offering to Demeter and Persephone, features a female figure flanked by a man on one side and another woman on the other. The central figure stands with her hand outstretched, carrying a pomegranate or perhaps a small box as an offering. Besides putting up votives like this, women could participate in an annual festival for Demeter and her daughter called Thesmophoria, which was a female-only rite with the vital purpose of ensuring good crops in the next season.

The fragmented stele above shows a priestess being crowned by Nike, the winged goddess of victory, held in the hand of Athena. This image of Athena looks the same as the one that would have stood in the Parthenon temple in ancient Athens.

One of my personal favourites (above) is a stele dedicated to the goddess Artemis by one of the many female devotees and priestesses in her cult. How do we know that it was an offering from a woman? The inscription reads: “Polystrata set it up.”

Although they were still controlled by male relatives and guardians, Roman women usually experienced more freedom than their Athenian counterparts. They too participated in religious life, with the most famous cult being the Vestal Virgins. These women were appointed as young girls, and dedicated decades of their lives to Rome’s spiritual well-being, even making public appearances at banquets and games.

Women also had an important role in funding buildings and business ventures. Evidence from Pompeii shows that many women made their contributions to the city as public priestesses and benefactors. For example, the largest building in Pompeii’s town forum was sponsored by a woman named Eumachia. She also built herself the largest known tomb at the site. City officials footed the bill for a similarly magnificent tomb in honour of a woman named Mamia, who was responsible for a temple dedicated to the cult of the emperor Augustus. Though they were not able to hold office themselves, such wealthy women might have been influenced their city’s politics through their endorsement or financial support of candidates.

Even within their limited roles in Classical society, women drastically shaped the religious, social, and political life in their communities. The mortals as well as the goddesses are certainly worth remembering.

All works © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photographer Johannes Laurentius. 1. Votive relief to Artemis, c. 450 BC. Limestone; 2. Votive relief to Demeter and Persephone, Early 4th century BC. Marble; 3. Relief with Athena Parthenos, 330-320 BC. Marble.