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'A death more becoming to himself’ Gender role reversal, Carthaginian Female Suicide and the Roman Imagination

Eve MacDonald

Cardiff University

The idea of feminising an enemy in antiquity reaches back at least to Archaic Greek traditions and certainly comes to maturity in the Athenian views of the Persian male in the 5th century BCE. The literary and artistic evidence reveals a tendency in ancient depictions of enemies to invert gender roles.A well-established method to criticise a culture or a specific man was the way in which men are feminised through the behaviour of their women. The out of control wild woman in antiquity was a danger to society and to the rules that governed the society and implicitly criticised the male ability to function, to control. A clear and dramatic example of gender reversal occurs in Appian’s Libyca where the end of the Punic city of Carthage (Libyca 127) climaxes in a Carthaginian female’s suicide. Appian comments that the dramatic suicide by the otherwise anonymous wife of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal would have been ‘‘a death more becoming to himself’. This paper will explore the way the death of Carthaginian women in the Roman sources is employed as a topos to undermine the memory of the structure of the society of the Carthaginians and therefore the natural authority of the Carthaginian males in that society. A wife behaving like a brave man, although to a post-feminist modern reader might seem a compliment, really just reflected poorly on the man to whom she belonged in the Greek and Roman mind. This is equally and more obviously true when men are depicted as womanly and feminine. To reverse gender roles was to throw a society on its head. The three ‘historical’ women of Carthaginian history (Dido, Sophonisba, and the wife of Hasdrubal) lived and embody three critical moments in their narrative. The very fact that all three women committed suicide only exemplifies how the Roman historiographical tradition created a kind of social inversion in the memory of the Carthaginians and helps to illuminate the way the Romans engaged in undermining their old enemies.

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Hannibal's Legacy

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