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Self-Image of Provincial Women in Roman Britain and Roman Egypt

Kelli Thomerson

The definition of “Romanization” has changed over the years, from the early 20th century when scholars believed Roman culture successfully infiltrated the native societies of Roman provinces, to the idea in the 1970s and 1980s that native cultures rebelliously ignored Roman influence. Today, there is a new view, the middle of the road: native cultures took what they needed from the Romans and left the rest. To better understand how the provinces reacted and adjusted to Roman rule, this paper compares the vastly different provinces of Britain and Egypt. It also serves to examine an important but under- represented group: indigenous women. The comparison of the native women of provincial Britain and Egypt provides a window into how influential Roman culture was in the provinces.

The available material evidence in Britain pales in comparison to that in Egypt. The Celtic language was oral, not written, so there are no extant native texts. However, curse tablets, tomb inscriptions, and religious offerings are valuable testaments to provincial women. In contrast, Egypt provides of wealth of information from papyri and funerary art. Looking at the material evidence, in Britain tombstones of women recorded their relationship with their tribes, not whether they were Roman citizens. In Egypt, funerary art presented indigenous women in a wonderful cultural combination that did not call any attention to their citizenship.

Most of the available textual information was written or created by men—such as legal texts and contemporary literature—but it is important to see how indigenous and Roman men viewed native women. In literature, most of the sources were Roman and all were male. Roman bias was apparent throughout, against both women and non-Romans, but there were some words of praise for Gauls and Britons, including a few of their women. In Egypt, there was a wealth of textual evidence written by Egyptians (both Greek and native) in addition to Greek, Jewish, and Roman writers. While several authors discussed the Ptolemaic queens, almost all completely ignored the common Egyptian woman. Our best information, though, comes from the Egyptian people themselves.

Other sources of information from Britain include nomenclature and place names, while Egypt was a bilingual society with two legal systems, a higher-level judiciary for the Greeks and a lower judiciary for the native Egyptians.

After examining textual and material data, the author concludes that the women of both of these provinces held true to their native identity, even over a period of several centuries. Despite adopting a few aspects of Roman society, such as material goods, these women did not live their lives in the Roman fashion; their beliefs and even their laws did not significantly change. Whether they were in Britain or Egypt, Roman influence was neither wide nor deep; native women held on their cultural identity.

Session/Panel Title

Women of the Roman Empire

Session/Paper Number

47.2

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