Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt

Jane Rowlandson (ed.)
Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, pp. 406, £16.95

AS far as the ancient world is concerned, the present reviewer would be the last to accept cheap jibes about ‘dead white males’, but it is still true that university courses in the history of political ideas have led Marxists to concentrate on Aristotle, Plato and other great thinkers, to the total neglect of how the system might have worked in practice. Anyone who wishes to take a real look at ancient society would do far better to study this book. However, it should be done in the knowledge that it is dangerous to use it for generalisations to apply to the rest of the Mediterranean world. Egypt was certainly not typical, and it is only the wealth of documentation provided by its hot dry climate that justifies so close an examination.

One of the reasons for Egypt’s anomalous position is that Graeco-Roman civilisation was largely imposed upon the older society without displacing it, leaving the original social and economic system intact in the countryside for some centuries. In fact, no less than three legal systems operated at different levels, Roman law at the top, Greek in the middle, and Egyptian custom at the bottom. Since this book draws largely upon Greek documents to illustrate the manners, mores and legal position of the upper classes, and upon Demotic documents for the native population, Marxists are able to compare them and draw important conclusions. For example, those who accept the contention that the position of women is a measure of the advance of any society, and uphold the schema of Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, will be disturbed to learn that although Greek society was considerably more advanced and dynamic than ancient Egyptian, women had an infinitely lower status within it. Legal documents show that the native Egyptian woman had far greater property rights and autonomous standing than her hellenised upper-class sister (pp. 156ff.), and ‘there is considerable evidence in Egyptian literature to suggest that the Egyptians took a much more relaxed attitude towards the sexual activity of unmarried women than the Greeks’ (p. 156). This was clearly part of Graeco-Roman Egypt’s legacy from Pharaonic times, and whilst the status of women in ancient Egypt was exceptional, other pre-classical civilisations also gave them more rights than did the Greek polis (cf. J.N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia, p. 105).

Once we are on our guard against drawing sweeping conclusions, and ignore stock feminist anachronisms such as ‘weaklings or viragos: the ambiguities of womanhood’ (p. 354), this fascinating and well-illustrated book contains a wealth of material from an incredible spread of sources. Its other great strength is its careful organisation into well-ordered themes with informative introductions, such as ‘royalty and religion’, ‘family matters’, ‘economic activities’, ‘being female’, and, most interestingly, ‘status and law’. But because women’s studies do not have a clear methodology of their own, other disciplines have to be drawn upon, in this case making it very difficult for the editor to create a coherent picture, as well as to exercise complete control over her material. Few people can possibly combine a knowledge of Egyptian archaeology, papyrology, Hellenistic Greek, Patristics and Roman and Byzantine history, and even fewer (no more than a hundred in the entire world) can read Demotic documents.

This comes out in the lack of balance in this collection between pedantry and ignorance. On the one hand is the insistence upon such spellings as ‘Boubastos’ (p. 19), ‘Horos’ (pp. 49, 51, 54), ‘Anoubis’ (pp. 64, 69) and ‘Kleopatra’, and on the other we are told that Clemens Alexandrinus was not only a ‘bishop’ (p. 21), but even ‘bishop of Alexandria’ (p72). The ‘prophetess of Jeme’ named on the London Demotic papyrus not only lived in the ‘area around the temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu’ (p. 59), but was obviously attached to the small temple alongside it, by then known for centuries as ‘the mound of Djeme’. Contrary to what we are told on page 72, the cult of Longinus was far more popular in Cappadocia than in Egypt. And whilst it might be the case in the Late Period that ‘the Egyptian priestly caste was a closed one’ whose ‘wives and daughters served within the temple communities’ (p. 55), this was certainly not so earlier. During the New Kingdom, there was no more common title for upper-class ladies than ‘Chantress of Amun’, whatever the religious status of their husbands. Not only is there ‘no evidence in ancient Egypt for the widespread use of cotton’ (p. 247), there is no evidence for its use at all before the third century BC. And if Procopius’ description of Theodora’s party turns before she assumed the purple are anything to go by, describing her as ‘of non-aristocratic origin’ (p. 45) must rank amongst the understatements of the last two millennia. Continuing in the same vein, the gentleman who asks his wife to be ‘subject to me in all ways that it befits women of nobility to display to their well-endowed and most beloved husbands’ (p. 210) can hardly be saying to the translator what he appears to be saying to the general reader.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal of life, interest and solid scholarship in this book. It cannot be ignored by anyone who aspires to understand the broader rhythms of history.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011