In Season 1 Episode 0 we ask: Why aren’t women in our ancient history textbooks? What is antiquity? How were women imagined in ancient Mediterranean societies? And why does women’s history matter?
Meet a North African woman Perpetua, whose prison diary from Carthage is one of the few surviving literary texts written by an ancient woman. And meet your podcast hosts, Rebekah Haigh and Emily Chesley.
[sound of pen scratching]
Narrator: It’s been a few days since we were brought into prison. Honestly, I’m still terrified. I’ve never faced such pitch darkness before. How cruel this is! The mob crowding in makes the heat stifling; and the soldiers tried to extort us. Most of all, I’ve been consumed worrying about my infant in this dungeon.
Tertius and Pomponius, the dear deacons who ministered to us, paid a bribe so we could be released for a few hours to revive ourselves in a better part of the prison. Then they all left the prison and sought some time for themselves. I nursed my baby, who was now weak from hunger, and I spoke to my mother about him. Then comforted my brother. I entrusted my son to them.
I suffer grievously when I see how they suffer for me. I endured this worry for many days, until finally I arranged for my baby to stay in prison with me. Immediately I felt stronger, and I am relieved of the anxiety and worry I’ve had for him. Suddenly the prison is my palace. I want to be here rather than anywhere else.” (Passio, III.5-9, trans. Thomas J. Heffernan, 2012, adapted)1
Rebekah Haigh: It was March 7th, 203 or 207 of the Common Era when Vibia Perpetua stepped out into a hot and dusty gladiatorial arena in Carthage, North Africa, modern day Tunisia.2 There, she would face state-ordered execution because of her faith. The words you just heard were Perpetua’s own, penned in prison in the days before. Whether through dictation or writing, remarkably, Perpetua got to tell her story, in her own words. And, even more remarkably, that prison diary managed to survive her death and the vagaries of time. Most women weren’t so lucky.
They are who we’re looking for in this podcast.
[Mediterranean-sounding detective music plays]
Emily Chesley: Welcome to Episode 0: “Missing, Presumed Absent.” This is a preview episode of Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world. I’m Emily Chesley…
Rebekah: …and I’m Rebekah Haigh…
Emily: …scholars, friends, and your hosts!
Rebekah: Our podcast unearths the stories and scripts of women from the past and argues that they still matter today. On today’s episode we start by asking: What is Antiquity? How were women imagined in ancient Mediterranean societies? And why are we on this journey to recover women from the past?
Emily: Open up your standard ancient history textbook, skim the index, and glance through the pages at the bolded names – and you’ll find a world dominated by men. Men ruled the empires, presided in synagogues and churches, marshaled the armies, and ordained the laws. It was a quintessentially patriarchal world.
Rebekah: As a result, the texts that have survived to us were, on the whole, written by and about men. It’s a crucial point that we will return to many times throughout this season: men wrote the letters, the literature, and the scriptures that we still use to tell history. Victors really did write the history, and those victors were almost always men.
Emily: These narrative frameworks women’s stories were put into shape how we read them. Stories about Cleopatra, Pandora, Theodora, and the infamous Eve were scripted – by men, by society, by culture, by religion, and sometimes by modern historians. And then in turn, we too (often unconsciously) apply those same scripts in our world. The claim that she was asking for it. Or, a personal favorite, “women are more emotional; men are more factual.” As we carefully read these ancient texts and pull apart their ideologies, we may even start altering our scripts about the present.
Rebekah: Our quest on this podcast is to give ancient women a voice and to deconstruct some of history’s narratives. In each episode we interview a leading scholar about some facet of ancient women’s history, as well as giving some content and context before and after. We want to offer a toolkit to recover our foremothers for our present. So the next time you pick up the Illiad or the Bible from your public library, you’ve been apprenticing as a detective and you’ll know the best questions to ask. Our first season, we’re focusing on literary texts, and how we can read women within them. To preview a few topics, we’ll learn about warrior queens from Meroe, female oracles, Rabbinic laws about women, female leadership in early Christian sects, and women in ancient Greek mythology. Together we’ll hunt through texts for clues about past women — not so much tomb raiding, but text-raiding, if you will. Like Indiana Jones but without the colonialism and stealing cultural artifacts! Along the way, we’ll also do our best to connect these topics to the present day.
Emily: Since we’re not interviewing another scholar today, we thought we’d share a bit about ourselves so you know who we are and where we’re coming from. Rebekah Haigh is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University in the Department of Religion, working in the field of Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity. She’s writing a dissertation that explores gendered piety and violence in the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient Judaism. In some ways, she explores the masculine flip side of many of the questions and issues we’ll be talking about in this podcast. Fun fact: Rebekah watches The Westminster Dog Show obsessively because she used to show Standard Poodles.
Rebekah: Emily Chesley is also working on a PhD at Princeton, and she’s over in the History Department. Her research focuses broadly on the eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity, and on Greek, Syriac, and Arabic Christianities. Her dissertation studies women in late Roman Syria, around 5th to 8th centuries CE. Her fun fact is, she grew up in the country of Chad among camels and hyenas. Emily and I met in our first year of grad school and hit it off famously. We’d both been homeschooled and shared a love of historical fiction and obscure movie quotes. Tweet us @WomenBefore if you too break out randomly into [affecting a pompous voice], “They seek him heah, they seek him theah, those Frenchies seek him everyweah!”
Emily: In 2020, we started a reading group at Princeton, “Theorizing Women in the Ancient World.” Because it was on zoom, we got to dialogue with graduate students, professors, and academic professionals from all across the globe. But throughout the year we also had a number of people who weren’t in academia reach out. They’d seen the group advertised on social media, and they wanted to learn more about women in the ancient world too. The idea for a podcast was born. We spent more than a year researching, writing, applying for grants, interviewing all the brilliant scholars you’re about to meet, then editing. All mistakes that remain are our own, and we beg your forgiveness in advance!
Rebekah: Our story roughly centers around the Mediterranean Sea during the thousand year span from 500 BCE to 500 CE. Some people use “ancient” to mean anything that feels old to them – maybe Genghis Khan, the Mayans or even flip phones! Academic disciplines like Classics and Religion have specific definitions of what timeframe “antiquity” encompasses. On the podcast, we’re using it in a looser sense and taking a slightly later skew to “antiquity” than academic books might take. This is our area of expertise, the time and literature we know best, and we had to draw the boundaries somewhere. But don’t “at” us on Twitter if we fudge these temporal or geographical boundaries on occasion to bring you a really great story!
Emily: To state the obvious, the stories of our ancient women were not written in English. Their world was multilingual and their histories come from a whole host of languages: Greek and Latin, Hebrew and Syriac and Coptic. Persian, Ge’ez, and Armenian. Keep in mind texts were also translated during antiquity: some books were written in one language but transmitted to us in manuscripts in other languages. Historians do our best to get at the original meaning of texts, but nuances invariably get lost in translation. We’ll talk a bit about how grammar obscures and highlights women in several episodes this season. We promise it’s more scintillating than it sounds!
Rebekah: As we’ve warned, the vast majority of our ancient sources about women were produced by men. Before anything, we need to acknowledge that portraits of virginal saints and shrewish wives are constructions. They reflect particular ideologies about who women were expected to be and how male authors wanted women to behave. These influential texts and works of art rendered images of womanhood, which may have had little to do with the real bodies and behaviors of women. On the other hand, the line between describing and creating can be very fuzzy. We need to figure out what to do with these constructions. Even as we recognize their artificiality, these texts can still teach us about the ancient world and the women who lived in it.
Emily: History is all about continuity and change. As you might expect, modern understandings of sex and gender differ from ancient ones. Contemproary theorists of gender and sexuality view sex and gender as separate and distinct things. To generalize, sex is biological, and gender is socially constructed.
Rebekah: On the biological side, concepts varied across the ancient world from author to author. The Greco-Roman model spread widely. In this idea, sexual differentiation happened in the womb, and women were essentially viewed as imperfect men, humans who didn’t fully develop into the final form of the man but got stuck halfway. The female body was therefore believed to be inverted or incomplete. Scholars since Thomas Laqueur have often referred to this as the “one-sex model” as opposed to today’s “two-sex model.”3 Laqueur explained that female anatomy was seen as a variation of the male sex – not an alternative to it.
Emily: There were certain physical characteristics and personality traits (read: stereotypes) associated with women, as anatomy was linked with behavior. Of course they had wombs, but their bodies were also seen as “wetter.” Aristotle, in his History of Animals, wrote: “All females are less spirited than the males… females are softer, more vicious, less simple, more impetuous, more attentive to the feeding of the young…” (608a.22–25, 608a.34–608b.3, trans. D. M. Balme, 1991).4 They were born that way! It’s an earlier version of the nineteenth-century idea that “women were prone to hysterics.” There’s a reason Mrs. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice was constantly calling for her smelling salts.
Rebekah: Women were seen as having less restraint and being more susceptible to vice. Unlike men, who had all the self-control in the world. The Rabbinic understanding of female biology and behavior seems to have more or less aligned with the Greco-Roman one. One legal tradition, the Mishnah, talks about how a woman can be secluded with two men, but not vice versa (Kiddushin 4.12), and another Rabbinc tradition, the Talmud, expands that this is because women are “light-headed” (b.Qidd80b). Michael Satlow explains this ruling: women supposedly lacked self-control over their sexual desires and their bodies, so two women loose with a man wouldn’t make for great odds at resisting temptation.5 Before you get self-righteous about the present, it’s not so different from the modern stereotype that women simply can’t keep a secret.
Emily: Gender performance could operate on a spectrum. Greeks and Romans did not believe that men could physically become women or women could physically turn into men. But men could be “less manly” by behaving in female-coded ways – like taking the submissive role in sex or expressing fear.
It was more complicated for women socially speaking, but in literary portrayals, authors would sometimes describe women as transcending their gender if they executed male-coded tasks like teaching or exhibited virtues coded as masucline, like courage. Linguistically, in both Greek and Latin the phrase “be of good courage” translates literally to “become more like a man.” So describing a woman as courageous was linguistically describing her as becoming more masculine. Shout out to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady! Anyone?
Rebekah: Why can’t a woman be more like a man??
We see this play out in the biography of Macrina, a fourth-century monastic leader. Her younger brother, the bishop Gregory of Nyssa, characterized her as a philosopher and his teacher. Again, stereotypically “manly” traits. So in his introduction he cautions, “it was a woman who prompted our narrative, if, that is, we may call her a woman, for I do not know if it is appropriate to apply a name drawn from nature [Read: woman] to one who has risen above nature” (Life of Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan, 1997).6 By teaching her brother and modeling the philosophical life, Macrina had transcended the roles women were traditionally allowed. But, by coding her as a man, Gregory effectively reinforced the barriers for other women to be teachers and philosophers.
Emily: The last thing we want to talk about before launching into our season, is why does all of this even matter? What difference does it make to go looking for women in ancient history?
Rebekah: By defining who gets into the history books as “those who changed politics or religion” or even “those who wrote important treatises,” we define “important to history” as “those who made an impact in politics or religion.” It’s an insidious methodological problem, and it becomes a self-repeating circle. When being a bishop or ruling an empire or writing a world history becomes our definition of historically significant, we then automatically gloss over the small acts of non-public people that also shaped history. And so, public impact gets reinforced as a central definition of history.
Emily: In reality, so many things make up our past! The kinds of clothing people wore or the types of clay pots they made are what scholars call material history. Songs and scriptures and prayers can be studied in liturgical history. The costs of bread at any given time and place, the commercial markets for wheat, and the minting of coins come up in economic history. The impact of inheritance laws on family wealth, or who could represent themselves in court make up legal history. Studying the average age at marriage, or the typical diet of an Alexandrian can be part of social history. We know Arctic volcanos impacted the Mediterranean climate and growing season because of environmental history. We could go on and on.
Rebekah: The point is that there’s an incredibly wide span of information and analysis that teaches us about the past. It’s not all about social elites. Not only does narrowly focusing on the generals and emperors and rabbis limit the historical actors who get written about in textbooks, but it also limits our field of vision as to what counts as history.
Emily: Though history may be written by the victors as we talked about earlier, history itself unfolded (at least in part) by the actions and practices of normal, often illiterate folks who weren’t able to write about it, or saw no need to document their daily sacrifices. George Eliot’s famous quote in Middlemarch celebrates them: “The growing good of the world, is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Women all-too-often lived hidden lives. But they lived. Every time we recite their stories and say their names, we remember that they were there. We keep their memory alive.
Rebekah: Another part of why women’s history matters is that it can affect how we view and think about and treat living women today. Not to imply that there’s a one-to-one correspondence, as if reading the Roman poet Catullus makes us see women as sex objects because he did. But as we’re seeking to be thoughtful and self-reflective, paying attention to our own contexts and subjectivities, it’s important to notice who we are in the present.
Emily: Even encrusted as they are with layers of patriarchy, misogyny and literary construction, we believe ancient women’s histories still hold light and life for us today. They can inspire us and challenge us. They can illuminate the precariousness of the freedoms we enjoy today. They can remind us to do better. And sometimes they surprise us, as we stumble upon moments that look more modern than our present.
Rebekah: Women’s history matters because it’s human history, and it reminds us to expand our field of vision about what history is. The women who went before are part of our human story. The woman who escaped the sex trade. The unnamed girl with a broken engagement. The explorer who wrote back home to her friends. These aren’t just stories from a distant past. It’s our past. We can see ourselves in them: in all their creative, intelligent, and sometimes murky glory.
Emily: Remember Perpetua? She died in the arena that day. Someone from the stands picked up the thread of her narrative, added an ending, described the gory moments of her death. Her story spoke to the fears and concerns of third-century North Africans facing religious persecution, offering inspiration for her time and a captivating story for the generations that followed. Certainly one of the reasons her story survived. We started with Perpetua because her story speaks to us across the agres–the gripping, original words of an ancient woman! How rare and precious that is!
Rebekah: But most women were not so lucky – either to tell their stories or to have them preserved for us today. In fact, only a handful of literary texts written by women survive from the ancient Mediterranean. Most women’s writings, and many women themselves, disappeared into the winds of time, lost in papyri tossed onto garbage dumps, some words deliberately censored by religious leaders incensed by female voices. We have lost their names, their faces, their professions, their hopes and fears. And it is those women, the missing, anonymous Perpetuas, whom we are searching after in this podcast.
Rebekah: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com, or find us on Twitter @womenbefore.
Emily: This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Rebekah Haigh and Emily Chesley. Our music is composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion (CCSR), the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University.
Rebekah: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before! And don’t forget: women were there!
- The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, ed. and trans. Thomas J. Heffernan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 126, adapted by us.
- Thomas J. Heffernan, “The Date of the Passio,” in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 60-78.
- Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- Aristotle, History of Animals, Volume III: Books 7-9, ed. and trans. D. M. Balme, LCL 439 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 217.
- See kiddushin 80b 4; Michael L. Satlow. “‘Try To Be A Man’: The Rabbinic Construction Of Masculinity.” Harvard Theological Review 89, no. 1 (1996): 19–4 (29).
- Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, The Life of Saint Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan (Toronto: Peregrina, 1997), 19.
- Aristotle. History of Animals. Volume 3. Edited and Translated by D. M. Balme. Loeb Classical Library 439. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
- George Eliot. Middlemarch. 1871.
- Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Saint Macrina. Translated by Kevin Corrigan. Toronto: Perigrina, 1997.
- Thomas J. Heffernan. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Thomas Walter Laqueur. Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
- Michael L. Satlow. “‘Try to Be a Man’: The Rabbinic Construction of Masculinity.” The Harvard Theological Review 89, no. 1 (1996): 19–40.