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Section of fresco depicting townscape from cubiculum of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, Italy. Roman, ca. 50–40 BCE. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 03.14.13a–g (Public domain [CC0 1.0 Universal]).
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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(In)visible women: Female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome (509–27 BCE)

Research project

Short description

A woman’s place was at home in Republican Rome (509–27 BCE). To appear in public was ‘abnormal’ or ‘transgressive’. Such is the status quo in traditional scholarship. While this traditional scholarship links women in Rome with private practices and spaces, more recent scholarship highlights their public lives and practices. So, how (in)visible were they? This project challenges the status quo by examining and visualizing the ancient evidence for female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome. The method includes: 1) the survey and analysis of ancient textual and material evidence; 2) the construction of a spatial database that collates the survey data and links women with urban spaces; 3) the construction of a digital deep map to visualize these data; and 4) the synthesis of results and overarching analysis.

Background
 

A woman’s place was at home in Republican Rome (509–27 BCE). To appear in public was ‘abnormal’ or ‘transgressive’. The patriarchy of Ancient Rome dictated that women should be subordinate, segregated, and invisible. Such is the status quo in the traditional scholarship.

This project will challenge this status quo by comprehensively examining and visualizing all the available ancient evidence for female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome. To do so it will adopt an interdisciplinary, intersectional approach, combining the fields of Roman Republican history, spatial history, and gender history with intersectional feminist theory, a spatial database, and digital mapping.

Image
Fresco depicting townscape from cubiculum of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, Italy. Roman, ca. 50–40 BCE. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession number: 03.14.13a–g (Public domain [CC0 1.0 Universal]).
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are many gaps in historical gender data and research regarding female visibility: these impair our understanding of women’s lives and allow gender biases and blindness to persist. Several studies have grappled with questions of gender, urban spaces, and visibility in the recent past. Despite these valuable studies, significant gaps remain, especially for antiquity. One such gap is a comprehensive study of female spatial practices (acts, movements, uses) and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome, even though there is ample ancient textual and material evidence of women’s lives in this city and period. This gap has led to contradictions and misconceptions about women in Republican Rome, particularly regarding the extent of their public prominence and visibility. Traditional scholarship links women in Rome with private, domestic spaces and practices, but recent scholarship has drawn attention to their public lives and practices. So, how (in)visible were they?

This project starts from the premise that women’s lives and identities were not and are not monolithic: intersectional feminist scholarship has demonstrated that social inequalities, oppression, and privileges occur across multiple dimensions beyond gender (e.g., ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, ability). Ancient evidence indicates that numerous intersecting dimensions influenced women’s lives and identities in Republican Rome, namely gender and socio-economic, legal, ethnic, marital, and age status. This project will thus incorporate an intersectional sensitivity to the influence of these dimensions. Women of different statuses led different lives: such differences would have influenced their spatial practices and visibility.

Purpose and aims

The purpose of this project is to determine the extent and dynamics of female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome. In so doing, the project aims to challenge and resolve contemporary and ancient contradictions and misconceptions about women in Republican Rome and to shed light on their lives. This project will address the purpose and aims with five research questions:

1. What urban spaces did women use in Republican Rome?

2. What did they do in these spaces?

3. How visible were they in these spaces?

4. How did their socio-economic, legal, ethnic, marital, and age statuses influence their spatial practices and visibility?

5. How did their spatial practices and visibility change during the Republic?

To answer these questions, a comprehensive survey and analysis of the available ancient textual and material evidence is necessary, along with a critical awareness of the differences between representations and realities in this evidence. Accordingly, this project will: 1) survey ancient Greek and Latin textual sources, including inscriptions, and all available material evidence (e.g. coins, archaeological sites) for female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome; 2) collate these data within a spatial database; 3) visualize these data with a digital ‘deep map’ (a multi-layered, interactive map with adjustable, interactive overlays for chronology and other dimensions, akin to the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire - DARE) to be published online as an Open Access resource for pedagogy and future research; and 4) synthesise the results and produce a final, overarching analysis.

Significance

The project will be the first to comprehensively examine and visualize all the available ancient textual and material evidence for female spatial practices and visibility in urban spaces in Republican Rome. It will contribute to international scholarship on gender and space in Republican Rome by surveying, collating, digitally visualising, synthesising, and analysing these data. More broadly, the project will enrich conversations about space, place, and spatial practices in Roman history, expand on the growing evidence for women’s public lives and roles in Republican Rome, and enhance the visibility of past women. By illuminating the spatial practices and (in)visibility of women in Republican Rome, this project will challenge and resolve contradictions and misconceptions about women’s lives in the past and substantially improve the availability and quality of historical gender data for future researchers and pedagogues. By combining traditional approaches to ancient material and textual evidence with a sensitivity to space, place, and spatial practices, an intersectional sensitivity to gender, and digital mapping, the project will also offer an innovative, interdisciplinary model for reconsidering female spatial practices and visibility in other periods and cultures.

Results

My doctoral thesis examined competitions for status (prestige) among senatorial women in Mid-Republican Rome (264-133 BCE) with a focus on competitive domains, resources, and regulation. In brief, my findings indicated that 1) senatorial women competed for status by visibly displaying their wealth and other resources throughout the city, especially during public religious activity, banquets, funerary practices, and the triumphal procession, 2) that they had vast resources available for their competitions, including wealth, social networks, and status symbols, and 3) that Roman legislators tried and ultimately failed to regulate female status competition through laws and other sanctions. Furthermore, as part of my doctoral research I developed a new digital database of all known senatorial women and their families in the third and second centuries BCE. One of the key realizations that emerged from my research and the database was that there was no comprehensive data or research on female spatial practices and visibility in the Republic. This realization encouraged me to take up this novel research topic and focus on a broader period (the whole Republic, 509–27 BCE), on a wider variety of women (not just senatorial women), on all ancient evidence (textual and material), and on new approaches (spatial history, intersectionality, digital mapping).

A preliminary investigation of the ancient textual sources suggests that women of various socio-economic statuses engaged in public actions (mourning, financial contributions, demonstrations, religious processions) in public and sacred spaces throughout Rome during the Republic, including within prominent, visible locations in the Campus Martius, Forum Romanum, Palatine Hill, Forum Boarium, and Aventine Hill. Moreover, as Celia Schultz, Meghan DiLuzio, and I have argued, prominent female religious activities occurred throughout the city of Rome (e.g., at temples, shrines, altars, homes, bridges, and in processions) and women themselves regulated access to some sacred spaces. These preliminary results suggest women engaged in various spatial practices and were visible throughout Rome.

Based on past studies and preliminary research, my anticipated results are that women used and were visible in numerous urban spaces in Republican Rome irrespective of their public, private, or sacred nature, and that there was limited spatial segregation by gender. I expect socio-economic status to be a key dimension affecting differences in female spatial practices and visibility and that there will be an increase of these phenomena generally in the latter two centuries of the Republic due to increasing female wealth and major social changes. Other dimensions like marital and legal status may also have had a significant impact, particularly concerning spatial practices in sacred spaces, as these statuses influenced religious roles and practices. More broadly, I expect the comprehensive survey, collation, and visualization of data to offer new insights into female spatial practices and visibility in Republican Rome, into the forms and dynamics of spatial segregation, and into questions of gender stratification.