British Museum blog

Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
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Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

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Once a warrior: from Plains Indians to the west country

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the PlainsRuth Gidley, Community Participation Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM), Exeter

In the modern world, war is broadcast on the TV news and Internet for everyone to see. So it’s rare for us to see first-hand accounts from soldiers expressed in more traditional art forms, such as battle exploits painted on animal hides. But art can still help to explain life in the armed forces to people who haven’t been there, and help to heal the deep emotional wounds of war

A group of modern UK servicemen and women, based in the west country, who looked in detail at Warriors of the Plains – a visiting British Museum exhibition about Native American warrior societies – were inspired to paint, write poems, make a film, and sew blankets, as part of an initiative here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Gallery in Exeter. One soldier turned the uniform he was wearing when he was shot in Afghanistan into a piece of art.

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

John McDermott, who spent 27 years in the Royal Navy before founding Aftermath PTSD, a group which uses art to help people suffering from combat-related stress, explained: “This is a way to let the public know about the military mind. And what happens to us afterwards, when eventually we take off that uniform.”

The west country is home to a significant military community, but civilians rarely know much about armed forces life. For us at Exeter’s RAMM (lucky enough to be named Museum of the Year 2012 by the ArtFund, the year after the British Museum won this accolade) hosting the British Museum exhibition was a chance to try to spark dialogue and build some cultural bridges.

Local veterans and serving soldiers found parallels with the ways and rituals of Native American warrior societies from the nineteenth century to the present. We recorded interviews and made them into a film, which also showcases the artworks made as part of the project, called Once a Warrior.

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Servicemen and women involved in the project – who had seen conflict in places ranging from the Balkans to Somalia, and done jobs as disparate as handling dogs for the Army and directing fighter planes for the Women’s Royal Air Force – found common ground in all sorts of practices. “There was definitely a connection between the army that I know, the modern army, and what we were learning about the Plains Indians,” said Captain Chris Gillespie, Queen’s Gallantry Medal and Bar (QGM), of 6 RIFLES, which trains Territorial Army volunteers for deployment to Afghanistan.

Whereas Native American warriors on the Plains used to decorate their clothing with patterns and human scalps to denote their society and status, today’s British regiments can be identified by their uniforms, mountain boots or special-issue knives. Wives of Plains warriors used to make them moccasins; now quilters’ groups sew blankets for the bereaved and injured.

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

A warrior might once have worn a bear-claw necklace to protect him from harm on the Plains, a vast area stretching from just above what is now the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Soldiers in the Once a Warrior film describe carrying a rosary, or family photographs, a pack of cards, and a beermat from a local brewery.

Lee French, a soldier, said guys still get together to tell battle stories. “We call it ‘swinging a lantern’, or ‘to spin a dit’ or ‘pull up a sandbag’.” But social media and TV news mean there is less of a need for warriors to write down their exploits or draw combat scenes. “Because it’s there and it’s plain for everyone to see if you want to go and look at it,” he said.

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

And whereas Native American warriors were – and still are – welcomed home with dances and pride, Royal Marines welfare officer Lisa Robinson said there was a chasm between military and civilian in Britain because of the nature of the wars in which its services were engaged. “Life is going on as normal whilst guys are being killed, injured, having traumatic, life-changing experiences halfway across the world,” she said.

Without enough support from the armed forces and the public, the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and trouble adjusting to civilian life is high. Will Means, who started experiencing terrifying nightmares and flashbacks years after leaving the Royal Marines, said it helped him to write poetry. “If you express it through art, writing, drawing or poetry, then you’re giving it to people in a soluble form that they can digest easily,” he said.

The group’s art was displayed at RAMM, two artists at a time, alongside the film and the exhibition that inspired it, 22 September 2012 – 13 January 2013. Once a Warrior – common bonds of combat, is on YouTube.

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Shakespeare’s legacy: the Robben Island Bible

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace TrustMatthew Hahn, playwright

I first heard about a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the book and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

These men signed passages within the text which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the Leadership Section of Robben Island.

After hearing this fantastic tale, I determined to write a play based on interviews with as many of the former political prisoners I could find intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.

It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.

Read more about this post and Matthew Hahn’s work on his blog .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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