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Female Participation in Epigraphic Culture: A Revision of the Received Tradition

Peter Keegan

Macquarie University

Did women see, commission, and set up inscribed objects and monuments that line Roman roads outside city walls? Did they read, interpret, and appropriate what these material and textual memorials represented? To find answers to these questions, we need to know something about the ability of women of variable age, ethnic origins, social affiliations, and power, to produce and consume words and images in epigraphic form. We also need to identify the various contexts where women interacted with private Latin inscriptions (Keegan 2014).

In this regard, it is important to note the degree of uncertainty permeating modern discussions of literacy and orality in the ancient world. Specialists in the field agree that the number of people who could read and write in antiquity is hard to determine (Harris 1989, Beard et al 1991). Even so, given the lack of concrete information as to women’s ability and propensity to read and write in pre-modern societies, commentators on this problem adopt an asymmetrical approach to questions of probability, especially in relation to the question of female participation in epigraphic culture (Macmullen 1982; Meyer 1990; Harris 2018; Tomlin 2018).

Discussing the ability of Roman women to participate in the production and consumption of epigraphy will require a brief look at current thinking about ancient literacy. Defining the scope of epigraphic culture in Classical Rome is a logical first step. In approaching different views of Graeco-Roman orality and literacy, it is also important to assess the possibilities for pre-modern female capacity and agency, underestimated for the most part, I would argue, in modern scholarship on ancient oral-rhetorical cultures. Moving beyond the potential for participation to conceivable situations for involvement, this paper will examine specific categories of female participation in civic activity: regional attestations – CIL 12.1687 (Tegianum, 2nd/1st century BCE); CIL 12.1837 (Trebula Putuesca, 1st century BCE); CIL 12.2544 (Sulmo, 1st century BCE); CIL 12.1610 = CIL 10.1213 (Abella, 1st century BCE); CIL 12.1597 = CIL 10.4263 (Campania, 1st century BCE); CIL 12.1588 = CIL 10.4052 (Capua, 1st century BCE) – and epitaphs from the city of Rome – CIL 12.1295 = CIL 6.16608; CIL 12.1296; CIL 12.1301; and CIL 6.29436 (all dated tentatively to the 1st century BCE). This should provide a sense of the degree to which expressions of literate production and consumption within the epigraphic environment permeated the lifeways of the peninsular Italian and metropolitan Roman population.

The survival of legislative, contractual, testamentary, epitaphic, administrative, military, religious, economic, and social texts from the mid-6th century BCE on indicates that the relationship between social environment and cultural media is less than incidental and perhaps cumulative. It is a short step to consider the possibility that women of divergent ethnic, social, and political statuses should be situated in the midst of this developing mode of self-expression. Mindful of this, the selected inscriptions will provide instances of female participation in the ancient epigraphic environment, across boundaries of status affiliation, economic classification, ethnic origin, and the like.

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Inscriptions and Literacy

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