The classical world was, by large, a male-dominated one. Women of Greece and Rome could expect to live a life almost entirely sheltered from wider society and under the fierce guardianship of a male relative for all of her life. A woman’s role within this world would rarely extend beyond that of wife and mother – political, social and academic spheres were an exclusively male domain of which women played little or no part. Though viewed as a mysterious and suspicious land by Graeco-Roman eyes, we might assume that a woman’s place in ancient Egypt would have been no different.
Greek Historian Herodotus, writing some 400 years before the Egyptian annex by Rome, provides a colourful description and perhaps one of the most famous passages on the social quirks of Egypt as he saw it: ‘Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers, so, too, have they instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of mankind.
Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pass water standing, men sitting. They ease their bowels indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, explaining that things unseemly but necessary should be done alone in private, things not unseemly should be done openly. No woman is dedicated to the service of any god or goddess; men are dedicated to all deities male or female.
Sons are not compelled against their will to support their parents, but daughters must do so though they be unwilling. ‘ (Hist. II. 35) Of course, while we cannot take this passage as a literal description, it does provide us with a mindset of how gender roles in Egypt were perceived prior to Roman occupation. A Roman living in the late Republic might too have found Herodotus’ description not so outlandish were he exposed to the incessant propaganda campaigns against the country initiated by Octavian as he was consolidating his powers in the Empire.
The fact that Egypt was ruled by a queen during Octavian’s rise to power is highly significant – it was not only her nationality as an Egyptian which cemented Cleopatra’s image as a dangerous and immoral figurehead of the Orient, but also her gender which made these traits all the more appalling in the eyes of the Romans. She was, by all means, everything a woman should not be. Cleopatra was the last Egyptian queen, but she was certainly not the first: Rowlandson tells us that, ‘Compared with the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Ptolemies accorded an exceptionally prominent role to the women members of their dynasty.
Like queens elsewhere, they might hold royal property, and had some financial independence; more unusually, several of them ruled as regents or even in their own right. ‘ (1998: 24) From this, we are allowed to believe that – despite not being a thoroughly ‘common’ occurrence – women in Egypt could reach positions of considerable power that women elsewhere could not. Rowlandson continues that to the Roman mind, such women, of which Cleopatra is included, ‘… provided classic examples of for later hostile writers of the ill effects of allowing women to wield political power.
Nevertheless, to understand how women experienced life in Egypt on a much broader scale, we must surely look to the evidence which relates to women from all social classes; not only to those born into royalty. Joyce Tyldesley offers a brief summary of the position of women prior to Roman rule: ‘ … there is enough evidence in the form of court documents and legal correspondence to show that, in theory at least, the men and women within each social class stood as equals in the eyes of the law.
This equality gave the Dynastic Egyptian woman, married or single, the right to inherit, purchase and sell property and slaves as she wished. She was able to make a valid legal contract, borrow or lend goods, and even initiate a court case. Perhaps most importantly of all, she was allowed to live alone without the protection of a male guardian. This was a startling innovation at a time when the female members of all other major civilizations were to a greater or lesser extent relegated to a subordinate status and ranked with dependent children and the mentally disturbed as being naturally inferior to males.
The contemporary written laws of Mesopotamia and the later laws of Greece and Rome all enshrined the principle of male superiority, so that the regulation of female behaviour by males was seen as a normal and natural part of daily life throughout most of the ancient world. ‘ (1995: 37) Octavian defeated the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra in 32BC during a naval battle at Actium. Egypt was quickly annexed into the Roman Empire ending almost 300 years of Ptolemaic rule. Egypt was, for the first time, ruled from the outside: Octavian would visit only once.
As Egyptian administration and social order was gradually transformed to better suit its role as a new Roman province, we might too expect the role of women to change and become more in line with the women of Rome. I am first going to look at religious practices in Egypt and assess a woman’s place within it. In both Greece and Rome, the only public sphere in which women were afforded any real wider role was within religious ceremonies, either for ceremonial purposes, as priestesses or to partake in cult rituals.
Although this seemingly contradicts the idea that women should be excluded from public life, women’s role within religion remains consistently important. The cult of Isis ties together the religious observations of both Egypt and Rome; her cult received a constant following in both regions, both before and long after Egypt became a province. Excerpts of a papyrus dating from the early second century AD reveal the perception of Isis as a great female figurehead of Egyptian religion: (P. Oxy. XI 1380, Oxyrhynchus = Rowlandson 25. )
O Lady Isis, greatest of the gods, first of names, Io Sothis, who rules over the mid-air and the immeasurable, who devises the weaving of . It is your will that women in health come to anchor with men . You became the discoverer of all things wet and dry and cold <and hot> of which all things are composed. You made the power of women equal to that of men. And in the sanctuary you… nations… queen… lady every country with your wings. Augustus was sure to implement, if only from his own fear of the power an Egyptian priest could wield, a strict reorganisation1 of hierarchy within the Egyptian priesthood.
Those within the priesthood who found themselves effected by such administration could now expect to be under the supervision of Roman officials; furthermore, the priesthood in its entirety now relied on munificence from the empire. (Frankfurter, 1998: 198) Nevertheless, women would continue to act as priestesses and maintained a significant role in various cults. The following provides only one example of such: (P. Oxy. XXXVI 2782 (3rd Century AD) = Rowlandson 36. ) Marcus Aurelius Apollonios, hierophantes, to the kalatephoros of (the village of) Nesmeimis, greetings.
Please go to (the village of) Sinkepha, to the temple of Demeter, to perform the customary sacrifices for our lords the emperors and their victory, for the rise of the Nile and increase of crops, and for favourable conditions of climate. I pray that you are well. During the early years of Roman occupation, the number of Roman citizens living within Egypt remained a small minority; it was not until the early 3rd Century AD when Roman citizenship was granted throughout the province that this figure would change significantly.
Prior to this, Egyptian cities were by large made up of those of Greek heritage, or who were indeed ethnically Egyptian. Roman laws introduced at this time, especially those which concerned women, were predominantly aimed towards the minority of Roman citizens. Roman women living in Egypt, therefore, were subject to the same laws as their counterparts in Italy. However, since non-Roman women were also subject to similar obligations under ancient law – namely, the provision of a formal dowry upon marriage, and a male guardian – it is difficult to recognise which women experienced greater levels of autonomy in their everyday life.
Roger Bagnall writes: ‘Women’s lives in Roman Egypt may typically be described in terms of a life cycle of personal and family events, beginning with birth and education, moving on to marriage and married life, and ending with sickness and death. ‘ (2008: ch. 339) Marriage was something all women could be expected to partake in at any time after their late teens, though sometimes earlier. It was not necessary for a marriage to be an elaborate affair; no formal paperwork was required and indeed, a marriage did not require registration with the state.
Nevertheless, there is an abundance of papyri from both the Greek and Roman period which suggests that, as an important life event expected to produce a new generation of children, marriages were widely celebrated, and those who could afford to do so might spend a great deal of money on making a wedding celebration as lavish as possible. In P. Oxy. XLVI 3313 (=Rowlandson 251), Apollonios and Sarapias write to Dionysia regarding her wedding, revealing the lengths they have gone to to have a decorative garland made of narcissus flowers and roses.