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:
There’s been a lot of media excitement in the last few days over the discovery of a clay tablet at the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia (home of the original Olympic Games), with 13 lines of the ‘Odyssey’ inscribed on it. It’s certainly a very nice find – unlike in the Late Bronze Age period that I study, inscriptions of any kind on clay tablets are unusual at this point (the 3rd century CE, when Greece was part of the Roman Empire) – though it’s fair to say that most of the excitement has been due to the Homeric text and particularly to the claim that this is the oldest text of any part of the Odyssey. As plenty of other Classicists have been quick to point out, this isn’t actually true – there are plenty of earlier texts of (parts of) the Odyssey, e.g. on papyri from Egypt, and the oldest known example is an inscription on a potsherd from Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 5th century BCE. This is just a quick post to provide some helpful links for anyone wanting to know more about this find:
Here is the original press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture (in Greek).
Here is a blogpost by ‘The Philological Crocodile’ correcting some of the errors that have appeared in a lot of the media reports, and speculating that the inscription could be a votive offering by a rhapsode (a reciter of the Homeric poems).
Here is a very detailed blogpost by ‘Kiwi Hellenist’ with a transcription and annotated photograph, as well as lots more details and a round-up of some of the news stories.
Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”
Athens’ Acropolis Museum is, naturally, best known for its display of sculptures from the Parthenon (in a mixture of originals and casts, many of the originals being, controversially, in the British Museum). Stunning though this top-floor display is, with views straight across to the Parthenon from the galley (see photo, unfortunately taken on a rather cloudy day), it’s not actually my favourite part of the museum – that prize goes to the first-floor display of the older archaic sculptures, dating from the 7th century to the early 5th century BCE (the Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century). Some of these sculptures are from the pediments of earliertemples on the Acropolis, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE; others are freestanding statues set up on the Acropolis as dedications to the goddess Athena. (I can’t post photos here as you’re not allowed to take photos of the collections, but there is a nice selection of pictures available on the museum’s website). Continue reading “Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum”
Every February, Cambridge plays host to a festival called “E-luminate“, which the organisers describe as “a celebration of the infinite possibilities created by light at the intersection of art and science” – as well as talks, concerts, and workshops, the most popular feature is always the illuminations on various buildings in the centre of town. One of these is on the outer wall of my college, Gonville & Caius: called “The Colours of Caius College“, it illuminates part of the facade in bright multi-coloured lights:
This evening, when it’s dark outside, you’re alone in the house, and beginning to wonder just what it is that’s making the mysterious creaking noise somewhere above your head…well, that would be the perfect time to have a read of some Halloween-themed blog posts!
Not a game that I’ve made this time, but one I bought some time ago: when I found out there was a board game called ‘Cyclades‘ about a bunch of Greek cities fighting for control of the Cycladic islands with the help of various gods and mythical creatures, I pretty much had to get a copy and give it a go. I finally just got around to trying it out with my usual crew of fellow-Classicist-board-game-fans and can report it was a great success (and not just because I won. OK, a little bit because I won.)