When I was asked to write a blog for Iris Online about all things classical my first thought was: how on earth, from all the hundreds of thousands of facts and artefacts and stories we have about the Classical world, am I meant to choose what to write about?
And so, after many scrapped drafts and a quick bike ride to my local museum for inspiration, I thought I’d simply start by sharing with you what I’m passionate about: the women of the ancient world. Some of you already know that I’ve recently written a historical-fiction novel, telling the story of the Trojan War from the perspectives of two of the women who loved, lived and lost during one of the most famous battles of all time. I want to share with you why I believe it’s so important to keep thinking about and interpreting the women of the ancient world, and why they still matter today. Contrary to everything we’re told in history books, classical women were smart, they were sexy, and they definitely knew their own minds. Remembering that, and starting to see the world through their eyes, opens up a very different vista onto the past than any you might have seen before – and in turn, makes us see our world with new eyes.
So here are a few of my heroines and their stories.
My first heroine has to be Briseis, one of the main characters who appears in my novel. She comes up in the first book of Homer’s Iliad, one of the most famous works of Ancient Greek literature, as Achilles’ war-prize. In the famous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon that opens the poem, Agamemnon forces Achilles to hand over his prize, the captive slave Briseis. Achilles responds by leaving the war in a fury of rage. The story of the Iliad is set – and it’s all because of Briseis.
She might be an unusual choice for my first heroine – she’s a fictional character, after all – but I believe she exemplifies one crucial reason why women of the ancient world need to be remembered: as victims of war. There’s actually a backstory to Briseis’ character hidden between the lines of the Iliad that dramatically changes the way we think about her. Homer mentions that, before she was captured by Achilles, she was a princess in one of the cities around Troy and was married to a nobleman called Mynes. During the sack of the cities around Troy, her three brothers and her husband were all killed by Achilles. It was only then that she was taken as Achilles’ prize to the Greek camp.
Briseis’ story is vitally important, I believe, because it gives us an alternative viewpoint on the legend of the Trojan War. It’s a very different world from Achilles’, with his debates on honour and glory. To see the Trojan myth through the eyes of a woman who has lost everything is to truly understand what’s at stake in a war. And that matters as much now as it ever did.
One of the things we often come across in Classics is that writers are almost always male, and that, by and large, they usually tell stories about men. But Sappho is the exception. Sappho was a female poet who lived on the island of Lesbos in around 600 BCE. And although we only have fragments of her poetry, they are enough to give us an idea of the extraordinary nature of her work.
With Sappho, we start to come across a very different voice from that of her predecessor, Homer – and one that is fully capable of holding up its own against him. There’s a fantastic poem (16) where she reacts and responds to Homer’s epic, and replaces it with some of her own concerns. Sappho opens with these words:
There are some who like war: cavalry, infantry,
or navy, they'll say it's the most stunning sight on earth
they've ever seen. I say that it's what-
ever someone loves.
This is a radical shift. Before Sappho, the only proper subject of literature was war. But Sappho turns it around. As Helen loved Paris and crossed the world to be with him, she goes on to say in the rest of the poem, so she is in love with Anactoria. The message is clear. For Sappho, the Trojan War isn’t about Achilles, as we saw above with Homer. It’s about the passion of Helen and Paris, and Sappho’s longing for her own lover. In other words, for Sappho, as for Briseis, the Trojan War can be and is a woman’s story.
So Sappho is essential in that, like Briseis, she gives us a different narrative of the ancient world; but this time she does it with her own voice. For the first time, the woman’s tale is being told. Life in the ancient world is revealed as not just all about war and battle and politics and men – it’s also about love, and heartbreak, and women, and marriage. It is a breakthrough moment. For the first time in ancient literature, the female voice is speaking up.
After Sappho you might be forgiven for thinking that the world of women was all love and marriage and rainbows. Well, my next choice is Livia, and her life was a world away from Sappho’s lovestruck song-making on the Greek islands.
Now, I have to admit I’m biased in choosing Livia as my final heroine. She’s been a personal favourite of mine, ever since I first received I, Claudius for Christmas over ten years ago. But then, anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ sparkling portrait of Livia can’t help but love her for the shrewd politician and cutthroat villain he makes her out to be.
But what are the real facts about Livia? Born in 59 BC into the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic and the triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar, Livia grew up at the heart of the Roman civil war. Originally married to a staunch Republican and with two children by him, she met a dashing young general, Octavian (later Augustus, the first Roman Emperor). Octavian apparently fell in love with her at first sight, divorced his own wife, Scribonia, and forced Livia’s husband to divorce her. The couple were immediately married. A few years later Octavian became Augustus, and Augustus became Emperor. Eventually, after Augustus’ death, Livia’s son by her first husband, Tiberius, would become the second Roman Emperor – and so the first to continue the hereditary monarchy that would last for the next 400 years.
Whatever the facts really were, Livia clearly wielded a huge influence over one of the greatest political figures of the ancient world and helped to forge the Roman Empire out of the ashes of the Republic. Her determination to get her son into power (even if she didn’t use all the means Robert Graves attributes to her) ensured the continuation of the monarchy and shaped the Roman Empire for hundreds of years to come.
Looking at my heroines, I’d say it’s a story well worth telling. Wouldn’t you?