One of the main themes of my book is the exploration of the lives of women in the ancient world through the characters of a Roman girl, Greek slave, Cretan courtesan and Etruscan matron.
So what was the status and role of these women in classical times? In both Greece and Rome they were chattels possessed by men. Athenian women were cloistered within women’s quarters and were restricted to household duties. In Rome they were second class citizens without the right to vote or hold property. What’s more, Roman women rarely ate with their men and could be killed with impunity by their husbands or fathers for adultery or drinking wine.
In both cultures a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children in order to ensure the continuation of her husband’s bloodline. Their identities were defined by their relationship as either daughter or wife. Roman women were only known by one name, that of their father’s surname in feminine form. In death their remains were placed in a man’s tomb and they were not commemorated.
Furthermore, while wives weren’t given the opportunity for education and social freedom – in Athens, courtesans were. These hetairae were allowed to dine with men and drink wine at banquets while discussing politics, philosophy, literature and enjoying entertainments. Of course they also provided sexual favours to the patrons who owned them.
Discovering this made me realize that gender inequality is still prevalent today and varies only by degree. Many rights that women of the western world take for granted such as education, suffrage and property ownership have only been acquired in relatively recent times. Certainly the concept of women being either ‘damn whores or god’s police’ is still held by many cultures.
Etruscan women were believed to hold positions as high priestesses and even conduct businesses. They could share their husband’s dining couch and drink wine. They had two names denoting both paternal and maternal bloodlines. Some accounts also state that wives had sexual freedom and may even have been able to claim their illegitimate children in their own right.
My protagonist arrives in Veii as a treaty bride determined to remain true to Roman ‘virtues’ but instead grapples with conflicting moralities as she is slowly seduced by the freedoms offered to her by her husband. I also contrast her life as a Roman woman to other women from Etruria and Greece. In doing so I realized that customs, laws and religious beliefs may have been very different in past societies but emotions and motivations don’t vary between modern and ancient man. Power, love and duty remain eternal.
The image is on a banqueting scene from the Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, Italy, 5th BCE. It depicts a husband and wife sharing a dining couch being served wine by a naked slave boy. The woman’s skin is pale compared to the ruddy skin of her husband ( an artistic convention of that time). Her hair is fair which may be a realistic detail. The both wear myrtle wreathes. Bright bordered mantles cover the semi naked body of the man and the chiton of the woman. There is an account from a contemporary Greek traveller to Etruria that Etruscan women not only drank wine and share their dining couches with men but also were known to raise toasts. Shocking!
(This post first also appeared at Jayne Fordhams' The Australian Bookshelf blog where readers can find great reviews, interviews and giveaways.)