Women's History and Ancient History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy | Go to book overview

NATALIE BOYMEL KAMPEN


Between Public and Private: Women as Historical Subjects in Roman Art

Goddesses and female personifications in great number and variety appear in Roman historical reliefs among the multitudes of soldiers, emperors, barbarians, and gods; as for mortal women, there are few: empresses, several vestal virgins, female barbarians, and some women in crowd scenes. Historical reliefs adorned public buildings and monuments in most parts of the Roman Empire from the first century B.C. on. 1 They generally have a propaganda function and thus deal with episodes considered to be history in the terms defined by Roman male historians. War, public speeches, administrative acts and sacrificial offerings by emperors, and conduct that demonstrated the leader's virtues were favored subjects. The formal exclusion of Roman women from the military and most government roles may seem to justify their rarity in this genre, but literature, inscriptions of women officeholders and civic patrons, and other artistic genres show that women were involved de facto in politics as well as in all kinds of economic and religious roles that brought them into public places. 2 Further, images of mortal women were both acceptable and common everywhere in the Roman world. Women were recipients of statues made in their honor for public spaces, and they were patrons for funerary monuments, buildings, and public works. 3 The case of Plancia Magna, discussed in this volume by Mary Taliaferro Boatwright, exemplifies the ability of wealthy women to exercise power in public despite the dominant ideology of female incapacity and domesticity.

Three previously unexplored questions emerge from a feminist consideration of historical reliefs. First, why are there so few women on historical reliefs when literary, epigraphic, and visual evidence reveals women as often active public historical subjects? Second, why so few women

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