Does the Ancient World Still Define How We Think About Women?

History Hit Podcast with Mary Beard

3 mins

12 Oct 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Ancient Romans with Mary Beard on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 7 November 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

I don’t want to be told that women from history wielded power behind the scenes. That’s what people always say. I’m much more interested in women of talent, intelligence and flair, and how they have been put down.

I don’t look back to the ancient world for role-models of how women can be successful. Gobby women tended to be silenced in the periods I’m interested in.

There have been so many ways of putting women down throughout history and they’re often the ways in which we still put women down today.

I look at the ways in which that was part of ancient culture and how we’ve inherited, mostly indirectly, our view of women’s exclusion from the public sphere.

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Why has the exclusion of women been so persistent throughout history?

I can’t say why women have been so consistently excluded, but I can say that our own treatment of women picks up from, matches and reprocesses 2,000 years of women being excluded from the public sphere in western culture.

During the Trump/Clinton Presidential campaign of 2016, there were Trump souvenirs which portrayed the myth of the hero Perseus cutting off the head of the snaky-locked Gorgon, Medusa.

Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton portrayed as as Perseus and Medusa.

The image re purposed Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus and Medusa, still on display in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria, putting Trump’s face onto Perseus, the heroic murderer, as they say, while the bleeding, nasty, gunge oozing head of Medusa became Hillary Clinton’s face.

The gender clash between men and women, violently played out in the ancient world, is still a gender clash that we replay today.

But this was worse than that. You could buy the image on tote bags, coffee cups, t-shirts and all manner of other products. Somehow, we’re still buying into the decapitation of a powerful woman. The same goes for Theresa May, Angela Merkel and any other woman in power. They’re always represented as the awful, disruptive, dangerous turn-you-to-stone woman – the Medusa.

After Trump had come to power there was a storm in a teacup when a female comedian held up the head of a decapitated Trump on television. The comedian lost her job.

Throughout the previous 18 months, we’d seen countless images of a decapitated Hillary Clinton on a wide variety of souvenirs.

Where does the ancient world lie in our sensibilities? It lies right there.

Clytemnestra holding the axe with which she killed her husband Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan war.

The ancient danger of women

Roman patriarchal culture, like every patriarchal culture, both fought and invented the danger of women.

How do you justify patriarchy? You invent the justification of patriarchy by inventing the danger of women. Women have to be dangerous. You have to show everybody that if you turn your back, the women will take over and wreck things. They’ll make a mess of it.

Greek literature is full of women who are about to kill you, or about to go mad. For a start there’s the Amazons, the mythical race of warrior women on the margins who every good Greek boy must stop.

And you have glimpses in all kinds of Greek tragic drama of what will happen if women get control. Clytemnestra is left alone when Agamemnon goes off to the Trojan war. When he comes back she’s taken over the state and then she kills him.

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There’s no way of being a powerful woman in antiquity, in any public sense, who is not somehow undermined by the threat of death or the collapse of civilised values as we know them.

There are marvellous stories about tall women who got up to speak in the Roman forum because they had something to say. They are reported as “barking” and “yapping”, as though somehow women don’t speak in male language. So they don’t get listened to.

One of the reasons it’s still worth studying the ancient world is because we’re still talking to it, we’re still learning from it. We’re still negotiating our position in relation to antiquity.

You can say that you’re not interested in the ancient world, but nobody can escape the ancient – it’s still on your coffee cups.