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:

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

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Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean

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Statue of Bacchus, god of wine, at the introduction to ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’

Happy New Year to readers of this blog! And to start the year off, I’m reviewing an exhibition I went to see over the Christmas break – the Ashmolean’s ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ (which closes in just a few days, on January 12th; for readers not in Oxford, there are a few pictures of exhibits and a video at the link).

The exhibition is billed as ‘tell[ing] the story of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii’s love affair with food and wine’, and it features plenty of wonderful artefacts relating to that theme, many of them loaned from the Naples Archaeological Museum or from the site of Pompeii itself — from the pots and pans used to cook and serve meals, to depictions of food on frescoes and mosaics, to an actual carbonised loaf of bread. Continue reading “Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean”

Epigraphic explorations of Athens

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!!”

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Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – Review

The British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition has proved incredibly popular – tickets are already sold out until late June, and it’s been getting rave reviews. Going to visit seemed like a good way for a group of classicists to spend the Bank Holiday, so as promised, here are some thoughts arising from the exhibition itself and the lengthy discussions we had afterwards. I know other people who’ve already visited may have very different opinions – I look forward to continuing the discussion in the comments!

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Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

A reminder that the British Museum’s Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, which I’m pretty sure all of us are going to want to go see, just opened today:

Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

As the self-appointed ResGerendae museum reviewer, I will certainly be visiting in the near future and sharing my thoughts, so watch this space!