Women’s writing in the ancient world

Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.

The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of  wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:

an00033854_001_l
Vindolanda Tablet 291. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

[Hand 1] Address: ‘To Sulpicia Lepidina, (wife) of Cerialis, from Claudia Severa’

‘Claudia Severa to [her] Lepidina, greetings. On the 3rd day before the Ides of September [September 11th], sister, for the day of my birthday celebration, I warmly invite you to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if [you are present]…Greet your [husband] Cerialis (for me). My [husband] Aelius and my little son send you their greetings.’

[Hand 2] ‘I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, [may you prosper] as I hope to prosper, and hail.’

The change of handwriting in the bottom right-hand corner is what gives us the clue as to how this text was written: most of this letter has been dictated to a scribe, but after the main part of the letter was finished, Claudia Severa took over the writing herself to add the affectionate closing lines, calling her friend ‘sister’ (soror) and ‘dearest soul’ (anima mea….karissima). Less affectionately, another Roman British woman deposited this lead curse tablet in the sacred spring at Bath after suffering a theft:

‘Basilia gives into the temple of Mars her silver ring. If anyone, whether slave or free, is involved, or knows anything about it, may they be cursed in their blood and eyes and all their limbs or even have all their intestines completely eaten away, the one who has stolen the ring or has been involved.’ (Curse tablet from Bath, #97)

Although in this case we don’t have definite evidence that Basilia wrote the curse herself, the chances seem good, since in general the range of handwriting found in these curse texts implies that people tended to write them themselves, rather than to get a scribe to do it.

Moving to Italy, there are plenty of examples of graffiti written by women in the city of Pompeii, ranging from the complaint that ‘Atimetus got me pregnant‘, to a price-list written on the wall of a bar by a woman who worked there (‘Hedone says: you can get a drink here for one as [a small coin]; if you give two asses, you’ll drink better; if you give four asses, you’ll drink Falernian wine’), to a series of inscriptions in a single room of the ‘House of the Four Styles’, greeting five women named Quartilla, Anthis, Nicopolis, Eupare and Cypare (a typical example: NICOPOLIS VALE, ‘Hello Nicopolis’); although it’s often assumed that inscriptions like this were written by men, I like Rebecca Benefiel’s suggestion that these five women wrote these greetings to each other, perhaps in the course of a dinner party.

A sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Reitia in Este, a town in the Veneto, provides some of my favourite inscriptions of any type: bronze writing tablets and styluses offered to the goddess, mostly by women, which are inscribed with dedicatory texts in the Venetic language and alphabet plus (in the case of the writing tablets) a series of writing exercises.

Venetic tablet
Bronze tablet with Venetic writing exercises. Photo by Katherine McDonald.

Technically speaking, I imagine these inscriptions were probably created by the craftsperson (-man?) who made the tablet, not by the women (and a few men) who dedicated them; but I’m including them here because they show (elite) women participating in a religious activity which was centred around writing, in particular learning to write – implying their literacy and wider participation in writing practices (see Katherine McDonald’s recent article on these inscriptions).

At the other end of the social spectrum, we even have occasional inscriptions written by enslaved women: on a clay roof tile from Pietrabbondante, two enslaved women have left their footprints and inscriptions in two different languages, Oscan and Latin, each giving their name (and that of their owner) and referring to making their prints: an incredibly rare glimpse of a moment in these two womens’ lives.

Footprint tile
Tile with inscriptions and footprints. Image: Imagines Italicae.

“Detfri of Hn. Sattis signed with a footprint.” [Oscan]

“Amica of Herens signed when we were laying out the tile.” [Latin]

Greco-Roman Egypt is another good place to look for women’s writing because of the huge number of letters that survive, written on papyrus. As with Claudia Severa’s letter above, one of the main ways we can detect when a woman has actually written part of a letter is when she adds greetings in her own hand to a letter which was otherwise dictated to a scribe – and sometimes, when we have several letters sent by the same woman, it’s possible to distinguish those she dictated from those she wrote entirely herself. Eudaimonis was a woman living in Hermopolis in the 2nd century CE, and several letters survive from her to her son Apollonius and his wife Aline, discussing both family matters and business. Some she has dictated but added greetings and the date at the end herself (underlined):

Eudaimonis to Apollonios her son, many greetings.

I much rejoiced when I heard that you are well, together with your sister Soeris. From the day you sent me word, I looked for the Laconian garment but I could not find any except for a worn out Attalian garment. You are aware that you gave half a pound and 2 drachmas of weight for the white gown on which account you spend one pound and a stater of weight. You are to buy and send it, in order that it can be sent to you in a hurry. I beg you to remain where you are in order not to grieve me . . . Salute your sister Aline. Soeris thanks you exceedingly and wrote me a letter about it. Young Heraidous salutes you and her mother.

Farewell, my son. Choiak 24.

Address: To Apollonios, strategos of the Apollonopolite. (P.Giss.Apoll.1)

Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline, greetings.

Above all, I pray that you may give birth in good time, and that I shall receive news of a baby boy. You sailed away on the 29th and on the next day I finished drawing down (? the wool). I at last got the material from the dyer on the 10th of Epeiph. I am working with your slave girls as far as possible. I cannot find girls who can work with me, for they are all working for their own mistresses. Our workers marched through all the city eager for more money. Your sister Souerous gave birth. Teeus wrote me a letter thanking you so that I know, my lady, that my instructions will be valid, for she has left all her family to come with you. The little one sends you her greetings and is persevering with her studies. Rest assured that I shall not pay studious attention to God until I get my son back safe. Why did you send me 20 drachmas in my difficult situation? I already have the vision of being naked when winter starts.

Farewell. Epeiph 22.

Postscript: The wife of Eudemos has stuck by me and I am grateful to her for that.

Address: To her daughter Aline. (P.Brem.63)

Others (unfortunately less well preserved) she seems to have written entirely herself, apart from the address on the back:

Eudaimonis to her most distinguished son Apollonios, many greetings.

First of all I pray to embrace you with good fortune, and to greet your sweetest person, now at last receiving a recompense for my piety, you free from harm and most blessed. This is all my prayer and concern. These things also please the gods . . .

Address: To Apollonios from (Eudaimonis). (P.Giss.Apoll.2)

Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline, many greetings.

I consider the most necessary of all my prayers that for your well-being and that of your brother Apollonios and your (children) free from harm. Afterward, thanks to god . . . the gods who . . . Aphrodite Tazbes . . . priesthood . . . Souerous and Heraidous salute you.

Farewell . . .

Address: To Aline from Eudaimonis. (P.Giss.Apoll.5) (translations)

These and other similar letters show women in Egypt engaging in a wide range of business activities – in Eudaimonis’ case, managing a textile workshop – as well as exchanging personal news with family members.

sumerian_goddess_nisaba2c_the_name_of_entemena_is_inscribed2c_c._2430_bc2c_from_southern_mesopotamia2c_iraq
Vase depicting a goddess, possibly Nisaba. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Going further back in time to ancient Mesopotamia, we meet another goddess of writing, the Sumerian goddess Nisaba (who was later replaced by a male god of writing, Nabu – typical). As well as references to women working as scribes (e.g. in lists of rations given out to workers), we have a couple of examples of scribal exercises which we know are written by women, because they sign them as such. An exercise in writing combinations of syllabic signs (known as ‘Syllabic Alphabet A’), is signed:

“Hand of a female scribe. 13th day, 7th month, Samisuiluna’s 14th year” (=1736 BCE)

Another scribal exercise – a bilingual word-list, giving words in both Sumerian and Akkadian – is signed with the writer’s name:

“The hand of Belti-reminni, female scribe”

Examples of fully-trained women scribes working on a variety of documents are found at the site of Sippar in the early 2nd millennium BCE: at least 18 women in Sippar (who sign their documents with the title ‘scribe’ or ‘female scribe’) are known to have written legal and business documents relating to the sale of houses, land, and slaves; court cases; marriages; and other types of contract. For the most part, one or both parties in these transactions are also women, usually those belonging to a religious group of women dedicated to the god Šamaš; but there are also examples of these scribes writing documents for men (as well as male scribes working for the religious dedicants), showing that a scribe’s gender did not entirely determine whom they worked for.

Although we also have numerous letters sent by women, as said above, it’s often hard to know if they actually wrote them themselves or (as was common) dictated them to a scribe (which – as Claudia Severa’s letter showed – was not necessarily an indication of the sender’s illiteracy). The last Mesopotamian example I want to include, though, pretty clearly shows not just (elite) women’s participation in writing practices but the expectation that they would do so. A princess writes to her sister-in-law, essentially, scolding her for not doing her homework – a failure which, apparently, will reflect badly on the whole royal family:

“Word of the king’s daughter to Libbali-šarrat. Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework? (For) if you don’t, they will say: “Is this the sister of Šeru’a-eṭirat, the eldest daughter of the Succession Palace of Aššur-etel-ilani-mukinni, the great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria?” Yet you are (only) a daughter-in-law the lady of the house of Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria!” (translation)

Of course, rare as ancient inscriptions written by women are compared to those produced by men, there are many more than I’ve been able to include here. If you’ve got a particular favourite I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Sources and further reading

Vindolanda Tablets online

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, by Alan Bowman (British Museum, 3rd edition 2003)

Britannia Romana: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain by Roger Tomlin (Oxbow Books, 2018)

Education and literacy in ancient Italy: Evidence from the dedications to the goddess Reitia‘, by Katherine McDonald, Journal of Roman Studies 109 (2019), pp.131-159

‘Women’s graffiti from Pompeii’, by Elizabeth Woeckner, in Women Writing Latin: From Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe vol. 1, edited by Laurie J. Churchill, Phyllis R. Brown and Jane E. Jeffrey, pp.67-84

‘Dialogues of graffiti in the House of the Four Styles at Pompeii (Casa dei Quattro Stili, I.8.17, 11)’, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, in Ancient Graffiti in Context, edited by J.A. Baird and Claire Taylor (Routledge, 2011), pp.20-48

Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC – AD 800, by Roger S. Bagnall and Raffaelle Cribiore (Michigan, 2008)

Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors by Charles Halton and Saana Svärd (CUP, 2017)

‘Literacy and gender’ by Brigitte Lion, in The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, edited by Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson (OUP, 2011)

‘Les femmes scribes de Sippar’, by Brigitte Lion, in Topoi Orient-Occident, supplement 10 (2009), pp.289-303

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

7 thoughts on “Women’s writing in the ancient world”

    1. Yes, people are probably sometimes too cautious about identifying things written by women, or too prone to assume that e.g. graffiti from a woman’s point of view was actually written by a man, and ee may well underestimate women’s literacy for certain times/places. On the other hand, women’s literacy is in general likely to have been lower than that of men (which will itself have been low by modern standards) in all of the cultures this post deals with. And then in the case of e.g. letters it’s often likely they were written down by scribes (who, when we have evidence of gender, are mostly men) regardless of the sender’s gender or literacy levels – so I’d be equally cautious in identifying those as “examples of the handwriting of named individuals”, say.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But equally I agree we should not assume male authorship wherever there is no evidence either way. In my own research on Linear B, what we know about gender roles suggests it’s unlikely that women were the writers of texts, but as we have no direct evidence either way I use a gender neutral pronoun for all writers

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It seems basic to me (a woman, not in any related field) that identities and pronouns should have always been kept neutral, rather than defaulting to men. Even if existing evidence points to something being male dominated, that doesn’t mean it was always men and therefore should always be assumed to be men. To me history shouldn’t be about playing the odds. Anyway, thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

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