Many Latin and ancient Greek textbooks, and even the AP® exam, focus largely on the experiences of aristocratic Roman men. But as a high school teacher, I want my students to see that there is more to the language and culture than just the experiences of free, wealthy men. The good news is there are many opportunities to teach texts about and by women in Latin and ancient Greek.
The novella Camilla, by Rachel Ash, is another of my students' favorites. It tells the story of Camilla, a famous female warrior from Vergil’s Aeneid and her incredible feats in battle. We compare her to powerful female figures in modern pop culture, such as Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman.
Another student favorite is Eurydice, by Miriam Patrick and Rachel Ash. It is accessible enough that I read it with students towards the end of Latin 1. The story includes the complex subject matter about love and loss, a subject that transcends the ages. We compare it to Sarah Ruhl’s play by the same name, as well as to other underworld journeys.
Eumachia, by Emma Vanderpool, is a unique novella that tells the story of a real person, Eumachia, who lived in Pompeii. She was a patron of the guild of fullers and a priestess of Venus Pompeiana. She also dedicated a building in Pompeii, the ruins of which are in the forum. This novella gives a glimpse into the life of a historic and powerful female figure in the ancient world. We can compare her to modern political figures who use their influence to give back to the community.
In addition to modern novellas, there are historic materials that provide background for the stories of everyday women in the ancient world.
Graffiti by and about women (especially those found and preserved in Pompeii) demonstrates that at least some women could understand and write Latin in Pompeii. They wrote about their experiences, varying from women supporting different men in elections to poetic lines written by women:
“Methe, slave of Cominia, from Atella loves Chrestus. May Pompeian Venus be good to them both and may they always live in harmony (AGP-EDR168048, The Ancient Graffiti Project).”
Some graffiti can be compared to modern texting or commenting on websites, as Latin women commented on their likes and dislikes, their political views, and their personal lives.
Roman gravestones often lined roadways outside of settlements, so passers-by would have the chance to read and reflect upon the lives of others as they travelled from place to place. Therefore, gravestones are another treasure trove of knowledge about everyday lives of women in Rome. From gravestones, we can often discover where these women are from, how they spent their lives, how old they were when they died, and what they wanted the world to remember about their lives.
When we read sections of the Aeneid for AP® Latin, we discuss the roles of women in terms of the influences of the goddesses, Venus and Juno, and their impact as controlling influences on the fate of Aeneas. My students have come to appreciate the power of Dido as a ruler, from her use of intellect rather than force to gain her kingdom, to her powerful and welcoming speech to the Trojans as they enter her rising kingdom. Later, when Aeneas leaves Dido, the question of whether they were married comes into discussion. My classes have a court case each year in which we examine the evidence in the text and learn about Roman marriage practices.
We also read selections from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in which we compare the laws that Caesar reports in Gaul about marriage and the rights of inheritance to what we know about laws concerning women in ancient Rome. We also discuss the roles of women during certain events in the Gallic Wars, such as the advice of the wise women on the eve of battle and Orgetorix sealing his pact with Dumnorix by offering his daughter’s hand in marriage. We also have looked critically at the invasion of Britain by reading adapted parts of Tacitus’ Annals about the Iceni rebellion, led by Boudicca, against the Romans.
Many ancient Greek textbooks barely address women outside of domestic roles, so I have adapted selections in Latin from Boccacio’s Famous Women. The Latin reading group Lupercal reads this book to examine women’s and other historically underrepresented genders’ lives.
Aside from adapting stories, I have also started writing ancient Greek stories for my own students that include those centered around women, like the goddesses Athena and Minerva and the hero Atalanta. I also plan to adapt Theodora’s captivating speech during the Nika riots from ancient Greek. Described in Procopius’ Anecdota (Secret History), Theodora spoke out against leaving the city and turned the opinion of the council to stay and defend themselves.
Finally, for more texts by women in Latin, see the founder of Lupercal, Skye Shirley’s collection of Women Latinists. It includes the travel writer Egeria and a poem in Latin by Elizabeth I. There is also a wealth of medieval Latin letters by women on the Epistolae website, which was created by Professor Joan Ferrante of Columbia University. The site includes letters from throughout the medieval period, including letters by influential women such as Eleanor of Acquitaine and Hildegard of Bingen.
Representation matters. Traditionally, textbooks have not given much voice to Latin and Greek women. But including stories about strong, independent women and stories by female writers in the ancient and medieval world creates a richer experience for students of these time periods.
Arnold, E. (2016). Cloelia: Puella Romana. Self-published using Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
Ash, R. (2018). Camilla. Pomegranate Beginnings Publishing.
Boccacio, G. (2001). Famous Women. (V. Brown Ed. and Trans.). Harvard Press.
Epistolae. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/about
Lupercal. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://www.lupercallegit.org/
Patrick, M. (2017). Eurydice: Fabula Amoris (1st ed.). Pomegranate Beginnings Publishing.
Procopius, Historia Arcana (Anecdota) Michael Krascheninnikov, Ed. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0669
Procopius. The Secret History, (English translation). Retrieved December 28, 2020 from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Procopius/Anecdota/home.html
Ruhl, S. (2008). Eurydice. Samuel French, Inc.
Shirley, S. Women Writing Latin Throughout History. Retrieved January 4, 2021, from https://www.skyeshirley.com/women-latinists
The Ancient Graffiti Project. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from http://ancientgraffiti.org/Graffiti/graffito/AGP-EDR168048
Vanderpool, E. (2020) Eumachia: Patrona Pompeiana. Independently published.