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Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Ptolemaic Faience and the Limits of Female Power

Alana Newman

Monmouth College

The obstacles facing women today such as under-representation in administrative positions, sexual discrimination, and social inequality have sparked a global debate about what kind of power women can possess and the boundaries of their power and agency. Encouraged by this conversation to reflect on the often-elusive relationship between women and positions of authority, this paper will investigate the roles royal women were allowed to play in Hellenistic Egypt by examining the representation of Ptolemaic queens on faience oinochoai.

Faience oinochoai are a type of wine jug made of glazed non-clay ceramic material, a precursor to glass, typically blue-green in color. The surviving oinochoai include 148 intact jugs and fragments, 30% of which were discovered in Alexandrian cemeteries. The remaining find spots are either unknown (10%) or identify the city in which the jugs were found: 45% in Alexandria, 9% in cities of Lower Egypt, and 4% in cities outside Egypt. They are decorated with portraits of Ptolemaic queens from Arsinoë II to Cleopatra I (c. 275–176 BC). The scene on the vase’s belly shows a woman standing between two pillars; she holds a libation bowl in one hand and a cornucopia in the other. An inscription often identifies the woman by her cultic and royal titles, thereby indicating she is depicted as both goddess and queen. Moreover, preliminary analysis of oinochoai show the women are illustrated simultaneously as suppliant, elite woman, and wife as well.

Scholarship on oinochoai is limited with the exception of Dorothy Burr Thompson’s monograph, which catalogued the surviving artefacts. Further analysis of the oinochoai is not only overdue, but also provides an important opportunity to examine female power and agency in the ancient world because they are uniquely gendered objects. Indeed, the faience oinochoai are the only portrait media that exclusively depicts queens. As a handheld, practical object made of inexpensive material, it is interesting that the decoration on the oinochoai is reserved for queens.

The oinochoai as a medium starkly juxtaposes other royal portrait media such as gold and silver coins, marble statues, and gemstone cameos. Not only are oinochoai made of non-precious material, but their iconography is complex and polysemic. In a single image, then, the oinochoai convey the many gender roles of Ptolemaic queens. Thus, these jugs are accessible vectors for multi-faceted messages of female power during a time often considered restrictive for women.

This paper aims to define the gendered social performances depicted on the Ptolemaic oinochoai. By utilizing Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, it is possible to determine the ways in which royal women held power in Hellenistic Egypt. Butler’s theory helps to establish a vocabulary for female power that is linked to the gender roles practiced by Ptolemaic royal women. While there are multiple gender roles conveyed by the iconographic and epigraphic evidence on the oinochoai, this paper will limit its investigation to two main roles: auxiliary power as queens and religious power as priestesses. By identifying these two main roles, it is possible to characterize the authority of Ptolemaic women in the religious, social, political, and domestic life of the kingdom and thereby contradict the traditional view that Hellenistic queens did not hold influence independently of their husbands.

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Sisters Doin' it for Themselves: Women in Power in the Ancient World and the Ancient Imaginary

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