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Women's Poetic Voices in the Roman Empire

Mali Skotheim

University of London, the Warburg Institute

An interesting aspect of Greek literature in the Roman period is the role of women in the poetic culture of the time. While more work remains to be done, important advancements have been made in understanding the importance of women poets in the Roman era (e.g. Hemelrijk 1999), and anthologies have made some women's poetry more accessible (e.g. Plant 2004). I argue that the conditions of Roman rule in the Greek world created a space for women to write, and write about, poetry, while the literary dynamics of the Roman period created demand for women's poetry of the past.

The tradition of women writing Greek poetry in the Roman world begins with Melinno, who responded to the Roman conquest with an ode reflecting on Roman military strength, probably in Epizephyrian Locris in the second century BCE (Bowra 1957). As women took on more public roles in the Roman Empire, poetic composition, especially of epigrams, became a way for elite women to display learning and status in civic and imperial spheres, seen in Herennia Procula of Thessalonica's Greek epigram on a copy of Praxiteles' Eros at Thespiae in the mid-first century CE (Gutzwiller 2004), and the priestess Claudia Trophime's epigrams praising Hestia in Ephesus (I. Eph. 1062.G, 92/3 CE). The cluster of women's poetry on the statue of Memnon in the second century CE, by Dionysia, Caecilia Trebulla, Julia Balbilla, and "song-loving" Demo show elite women inserting themselves into a space of public poetic display (Rosenmeyer 2018). Lucian's parody of elite women composing Sapphic poems suggests that poetic activity was more common among women than these few chance survivals indicate (Lucian, On Salaried Posts 36). Melinno's Sapphic stanzas, Julia Balbilla's Aeolic dialect, and Lucian's reference to Sapphic compositions suggest a self-awareness among women of their place in a long Greek tradition of women's poetry.

Pamphile of Epidauros (FHG III 520) engaged with poetry in a different way, producing a work of historical anecdotes with interests in poetry and music in the time of Nero. Pamphile's work was cited by a musical theorist, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the time of Hadrian, suggesting that he may have sought out her work for its relevance to his topic (Suda π 139). Additionally, literary activity by men engaging with women's poetry, including citations and quotations, and Antipater of Thessalonica's canon of nine women poets (Anthologia Palatina IX 26), demonstrate that women's poetry reached a reading audience, as Greek authors of the Roman period valorized the literature of the past. This, I argue, had the effect of amplifying women's voices of the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic period within Greek literature of the Roman imperial period.

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Breaking the Paradigm: Greek Poetry in the Roman Empire

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