Merchant Matronae: Women, Ships, and Trade in the Hellenistic and Roman World

Carrie Fulton

In the late second or early third century CE, two women presented a dedicatory inscription to the goddess Leto in which they referred to themselves as ship owners and merchants who participated in trade on the Red Sea. What is remarkable is the degree to which these women engaged in trade. Previous research and assumptions about gender roles have downplayed the involvement of women in shipping and trade, relegating them to the peripheries of investing in trade. However, I use evidence from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt as well as Roman law to argue that women not only owned ships in the ancient world but also actively participated in trade.

Previous studies have identified elite women as owners of ships in Egypt (Hauben 1993), yet a closer look at textual, papyrological, and epigraphical sources indicates that some women in Egypt and Rome also acted as agents in charge of trade and the transportation of cargoes. For example, a grain receipt from the late second or early third century CE, lists Sarapias as the owner of a ship and her brother as the captain or helmsman (P. Tebt. II 370). While her brother physically sailed the boat down the Nile, the receipt indicates that Sarapias was responsible for arranging the cargo of wheat to be loaded on the ship and transported to the granary. Similarly, a second century BCE contract lists a woman who did not own a boat but instead leased one for transport, suggesting that she was responsible for ensuring that its use earned her a profit (P. Erasm. II 39). Moreover, Imperial Roman law also includes women as agents in trade and shipping. According to Suetonius, the emperor Claudius introduced legislation in which a woman would gain privileges granted to a mother of four children if she not only owned a ship of a large enough size but also used it to import grain to the city for six years (Claud. 18-19). Likewise, a passage attributed to the Roman jurist Ulpian says that either a man or a woman may employ a ship in business activities and that even daughters or female slaves may be placed in charge of a ship (Dig. 14.1.1).

Although still a male-dominated area, these examples illustrate that women were not excluded from shipping and trading. In this paper, I show that women even used these activities as an indicator of or as a means to attain wealth and status. While many of these female voices are preserved only through the voices of others, such as references in juristic law that was written by males, some of those voices are told by the subaltern, as in the case of the dedicatory inscription by women who tout their position as female merchants. Consequently, strictly assuming a male-dominated sphere of exchange limits the view of trade. Reconsidering preconceived gender restrictions in trade and seafaring highlights a group of female agents whose voices had been muted by our etic notions of gender roles.

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Gender and Identity

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