Celebrating Women - Roman Style / by Jeannine Cook

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It seems that every single exhibition to which one goes is a new source of fascination - a good reason, I have decided, to bestir oneself and get to different shows. "Women of Rome", from the Louvre Collections, is just such an example. On exhibit in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, at the Caixa Forum until 9th October, it examines the images of women portrayed in Roman times.

Remember, women, of whatever social status, were considered inferior by law, on the same level as children in Rome - no vote, no political office   (Sound uncomfortably familiar, even in recent times?) It was all a man's world: even the word "virtue" (virtus) derives from Vir, or man, and virtue was a characteristic of the male world. This all ensured that women were separated from civic life and thus depended on the authority of their fathers, or, if married, that of their husbands.

What I found so interesting that given these legal strictures, women were nonetheless most important in Roman society and this shows up in the art works depicting them. Love and fear, desire and dislike, even scorn, characterised attitudes towards women, be they married women, prostitutes, empresses or priestesses. These attitudes are illustrated, by male artists, in innumerable ways, throughout the Roman Empire - in Turkey, in Syria, in Egypt and North Africa as well as in Italy itself.

In both the private world and, thanks to the ever-increasingly prominent role wives of emperors played, in the public arena, women were celebrated in painting, statuary, jewellery and household objects. As wives, as mothers, and - hurrah, hurrah - as wealthy, independent women, way ahead of laws and social mores, throughout society, we have tangible records of the esteem in which they were held. Their marble busts, often faithfully recording amazing hair styles in different periods, their profiles on exquisite cameos, their unnervingly lifelike funerary portraits from Fayoum, Egypt - they were all celebrated individual women who were loved and cherished. They were clearly women from all walks of life and all social levels.

 Mother nursing an infant in the presence of the father, detail from a young boy's sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, ca. 150 CE (image courtesy of the Louvre)

Mother nursing an infant in the presence of the father, detail from a young boy's sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, ca. 150 CE (image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Poppaea Sabina, notorious wife of Nero. Rome, marble 55-60 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Poppaea Sabina, notorious wife of Nero. Rome, marble 55-60 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Portrait of a woman, mid 2nd century AD, Fayoum, Egypt, painting on board (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Portrait of a woman, mid 2nd century AD, Fayoum, Egypt, painting on board (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Fayoum, Egypt Portrait of a woman, known as "L'Européenne", Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392) (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Fayoum, Egypt Portrait of a woman, known as "L'Européenne", Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392) (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

At the same time, Roman male artists also created images of woman in other roles, moral and religious, legendary, erotic or prophetic. On wonderful Italian terracotta plaques, women were celebrated as muses, goddesses, priestesses of divine inspiration. Muses of different arts were depicted in a series of wall paintings from Pompeii, as well as marble statuary, inspiring poetry. music, even astronomy. The famous Three Graces were created with their sensuous, beautiful naked bodies, contrasted later in the exhibition bya marble statue of Hermaphrodite, evoking the more complex aspects of human sensuality. The darker sides of feminine powers were fully explored as well - remember that Medusa, for instance, was a woman!

 The Three Graces, 2nd century AD, Rome, marble (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

The Three Graces, 2nd century AD, Rome, marble (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Mural frescopainting fragment, Caliope, Pompeii, Italy, 62-79 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Mural frescopainting fragment, Caliope, Pompeii, Italy, 62-79 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Mural frescopainting fragment, Caliope, Pompeii, Italy, 62-79 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Mural frescopainting fragment, Caliope, Pompeii, Italy, 62-79 AD (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Mirror, Leda and the Swan, Boscoreale, end of 1st century BD-first half 1st century AD, silver (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Mirror, Leda and the Swan, Boscoreale, end of 1st century BD-first half 1st century AD, silver (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

 Sardonic cameo, mask of Medusa. Roman (Image courtsy of the Louvre)

Sardonic cameo, mask of Medusa. Roman (Image courtsy of the Louvre)

Beautiful objects, fruit of much labour and skill - so ironic that all these images of Roman women, in all their personae, were created at a time when a society denied any legal or civil rights tor half of their population spread across an immense empire. Mankind has ever been full of contradictions. I am not sure we do much better some two thousand years later in many aspects of gender. However, I do wonder whether the images created today of women will stand the test of time as do such depictions of Rome's women.