Recently there’s been a great deal of discussion on the topic of whether women did actually exist in “historical times,” by which I mean to say that all too often “common knowledge” of what women’s roles were in historical periods is a mythology. If writers and readers base their expectations of women in fantasy fiction on these erroneous stereotypes, then not only is our literature and our reading the poorer for it but it is also getting it wrong.

Today I offer a guest post by Australian writer Tansy Rayner Roberts on this very (and very important) subject.



Looking for the Women (in Ancient Rome)

by Tansy Rayner Roberts


I was inspired to write this after Kate’s post about looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds.

It’s long frustrated me that a great deal of fantasy fiction in the long tradition of the genre underestimates women.  In particular, I am tired of worlds which are supposedly ‘based on medieval history’ and yet seem to be under the impression that women in the Middle Ages only turned up when a hero needed someone to marry, or to pour him a drink.

And I’m especially, especially tired of any attempts to interrogate the gender politics in fantasy fiction being shut down with the argument: it’s based on real history, so the sexism is AUTHENTIC.

I’m not going to lie to you.  Every historical period has been unkind to women, up to and including our own.  But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t complex and interesting possibilities available to women of all eras, in between stirring the turnip soup and being oppressed.

My favourite fantasy fiction is fed by history, by the nitty gritty details of things that really happened, people who had real lives, tossed around with magic because that automatically makes things more fun.

I wanted to bring my knowledge of Ancient Rome to what Kate has already talked about, largely because I think we can all take a rest from pure Anglo medieval-inspired fantasy for a decade or two, but also because Rome is what I know best.

Ancient Rome is packed with the types of historical issues we see people running up against when trying to write non-sexist stories set in mostly-sexist societies.  In Rome, there was a very clear division between the public and private spheres.  Sadly almost every historical document that survived to document their society was kept because it related to the ‘obviously important’ public sphere in which men were dominant.  Most of the sources we have about private life are conveyed in the words of men, such as the Letters of the Younger Pliny.

But while women had no technical power in that public sphere (which mostly consisted of military issues, senatorial politics and toga parties) they had immense power behind the scenes.  They had their own religious rituals which were considered just as important to the well being of the state as the public, mostly-male rites.  For a long time, scholars assumed women’s religion was less important because they weren’t allowed to make blood sacrifice, and it’s only recently that scholars have gone, um, maybe we only assumed blood sacrifice was more important than, say, baking the sacrificial cakes, because the men were in charge of it?  Oops.

Women of all social levels ran businesses, owned property and slaves, and moved freely around their local city or, if they preferred, the Empire itself.  Even aristocratic women could do those things, though they were more likely to have male relatives who wanted to control them.  The older a woman got, the greater her status.  Divorce was easy to achieve (as long as you weren’t too emotionally attached to your children, one hell of a loophole) but there was special social status granted to a univira, the rare woman who had only had one husband in her lifetime.

We know that Augustus, the first emperor, brought in legislation to try to control women, a little under two thousand years ago, and that tells us a lot about how unruly they had become!  In particular, he brought in a law to force women of the upper classes to remarry within two years of being widowed (and one year of divorce).  This was somewhat devastating, as divorcing your husband or becoming a widow had previously been the best way for  a woman to achieve independence.

Still, we have some great examples of interesting women in Roman history, who had rich and fulfilling and complex lives, despite the patriarchal society in which they lived.  Such as:

The word ‘virago’ was supposedly coined by Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) to insult his rival Marc Antony’s wife Fulvia.  It means ‘women who acts like a man’ and referred to the fact that Fulvia joined her husband on military expeditions.  She wasn’t actually wielding a sword or wearing armour (not that I’d put it past her, she was a feisty lady), but it was apparently unusual for a woman to prefer to rough it in a tent with her husband rather than stay home in comfort with her children.

Having said that, we know of several other women who did the same thing, including Agrippina Major (the granddaughter of Augustus) who raised her children in military camps so they could be near her their father (and so they would all be far from the dangerous politics of the capital).  Later, the Empress Faustina Minor discovered that following her husband to war allowed historians to trash talk her reputation (though the accusations that she had affairs with gladiators had little to do with her own reputation and everything to do with how much the Romans hated her son, the Emperor Commodus).

While having a husband was the key to many social successes and honours in Ancient Rome, it was not always compulsory.  The Vestal Virgins were the among the highest status women in the city.  While there were some scary stories circulating about what would happen to a Vestal if she broke the chastity rule (buried alive for a start) they were nevertheless trusted to regulate that chastity themselves.  They were not shut away or guarded by eunuchs as some 1960’s movies might have you believe!

In fact they moved through the city in freedom and comfort, attended dinner parties, performed rituals, and took part in several business-related duties including the receiving, archiving and dispensing of the city’s legal wills and other documents.  They often had political influence, and had the same status in a law court as a man – which is to say their word had greater legal weight than any other woman of the time.
After thirty years of service (they sign up as children) each Vestal would be released with a generous dowry, and could either live independently or choose to marry.

One of my favourite historical characters (only partly because of the marvellous historical novel written about her, The Course of Honour by Lindsey Davis) is Caenis, the mistress to the Emperor Vespasian (he who built the Colosseum).  Caenis’ story is fascinating because it goes against everything we think we know about Roman society and their class system, and what women were allowed to do.

Caenis began as an imperial slave, serving Antonia (niece of the Emperor Augustus, mother of the Emperor Tiberius) as a personal secretary.  She appears to have had an eidetic memory, and served her mistress dutifully through a time of great political scandal.  When she was freed, she took the name ‘Antonia’ as was tradition.

But while freedwomen could run businesses and own property, one thing not allowed to Antonia Caenis was to marry above her station.  Her love affair with the ageing general Vespasian thus was unlikely to be officially sanctioned by the state, but the class divide broadened when he became the surprise Emperor of a new dynasty.  Luckily he already had two adult sons.  He and Caenis lived happily together in the imperial quarters, she providing him with great advice and wisdom, until her death.

Even in a world where the rules of marriage and social status were quite complex and technically restrictive, love and smarts could beat them all into the ground!
There are so many other specific women I could have talked about – the further they got from the city of Rome itself, and the lawmakers who thought it was okay to dictate what women should do, the more likely they were to take all kinds of freedoms for themselves that the law didn’t actually allow for.  Take mixed bathing – the public baths were supposed to have separate areas for men and women, but half the time they all jumped in together, with all the social ramifications that might imply, regardless of whether or not the current Emperor though it was a good idea.  In smaller towns we even have women running local councils, or breaking with all manner of traditions expected of ‘good’ Roman matrons.

Then there’s the time that the Emperor Augustus gave a lecture about what men should demand of their wives, with all the senators laughing up their sleeves because they all knew that the women of his family had other opinions on the matter.

If we learn nothing else from Roman history, it is that there have always been strong-willed women who get their own way, no matter what the law or the ideals of the society say about it.  Personality can rule over technicalities, and even a sexist society can produce some amazing, capable women, those who work with the system as well as those who work against it.

Too often, female characters only get celebrated in fantasy fiction if they are behaving like men, or taking on traditional male attributes – the kickass lady in armour, the sorceress who can zap you if you say the wrong thing, and so on.  But while I’m all for putting women in (sensible) armour and throwing them out on the battlefield, I also would like to see greater use of other female roles in fantasy – of women’s brains, in particular.  The further back you go in history, the smarter women had to be in order to exhibit and use the power they had.  So let’s see more of THAT in fantasy.

If a story starts with a maiden, let’s not assume that she has to get locked in a tower.  There are alternatives…



This post was written by Tansy Rayner Roberts for her Flappers with Swords Blog Tour.

Tansy’s award-winning Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, featuring flappers with swords, shape changers, half-naked men and bloodthirsty court politics, have been released worldwide on the Kindle, and should be available soon across other e-book platforms.  If you prefer your books solid and papery, they can also be found in all good Australian and New Zealand bookshops.

You can also check out Tansy’s work through the Hugo-nominated crunchy feminist science fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia, Tansy’s short story collection Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press).  You can find her on the internet at her blog, or on Twitter as @tansyrr.