Could Women in Ancient Rome Read?

Candida Moss
·7 min read

When it comes to ancient education and literacy, the consensus is that most people in the ancient Roman world were illiterate. Those who could read and write were wealthy elites; it was only because their families had enough money to pay for their education. What was true in general for ancient people was especially the case for women, who were almost never educated in the same way that their male siblings were. Now, a newly published article on archaeological evidence from an ancient Italian shrine dedicated to the "goddess of writing," argues that communal women’s education started much earlier than we knew.

Most of our evidence for literacy and education in the second – fourth centuries BCE comes from Egypt. The few literary sources we have about education in the Roman Republic (roughly 509-27 BCE) suggests that it was only elite boys who received an education and that early education like learning the alphabet and such took place in the home. Most scholars argue that systematic forms of education were imported from Greece later in the Republican period. In her article, “Education and Literacy in Ancient Italy: Evidence from the Dedications to the Goddess Reitia,” Katherine McDonald, of the University of Exeter, uses bronze offerings made to the northeastern Italian "goddess of writing" (Reitia) at her sanctuary in Este-Baratella (Veneto), to argue that “women were active participants in literacy and education” between 350-150 BCE.

A common feature of ancient religious practice was the depositing of votives—objects connected to the identity of a particular deity—in shrines related to particular deities. Pilgrims at temples dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing for example, often took votives in the form of body parts. These were often offered to mark a particular milestone in a person’s life. In the case of Reitia, these votives include bronze writing implements and tablets that are inscribed with ancient writing exercises. It’s for this reason that Reitia is associated with literary practice at all. These exercises were the ancient equivalent of the cursive exercise books we use to educate children today. They often include a table of the alphabet or the repetition of single letters or syllables. What’s interesting about the writing-themed votives dedicated to Reitia, is that in many cases it was women, rather than men, who were dedicating these items. “[T]hese dedications,” argues McDonald, “provide evidence that some elite women at Este-Baratella were literate — or, at the very least, were active participants in a dedicatory practice which celebrated elementary literacy.”

Though some scholars have been dismissive of the possibility of literacy among even elite women, others have attempted to find hints of women’s literary and intellectual activity in what was otherwise a male-dominated Roman society.

In her groundbreaking books Guardians of Letters and The Gendered Palimpsest, Cornell professor Kim Haines Eitzen, shows that at an elite level, women were an important part of ancient book cultures. While a great deal depends on the specific time period and geographical region under discussion, she told The Daily Beast; there’s evidence that women owned libraries, lent out books, wrote letters, and even functioned as scribes.

Excavations at Pompeii revealed a remarkable portrait of Terentius Neo, a "middle-class" baker, with his wife. In the fresco the baker’s wife is shown holding a stylus and wax tablet. Her accessories suggest that she is educated and literate and while portraying herself this way may have been an attempt to affect affluence and education, the fact that she is shown in this way suggests that it was, at least, possible that an ancient woman was literate.

The prison diary or memoir of one of Christianity’s most famous martyrs, Perpetua of Carthage, forms the foundation for the account of her suffering and death. The story explicitly mentions that Perpetua wrote the autobiographical portion of the account with her own hand. The narrator also describes her as “liberally educated,” a phrase used by Romans to refer to the broad education of elites (rather than lower status specialist education of, say, bankers). There are some good reasons to wonder if Perpetua herself actually wrote the text attributed to her, but if she did, the fact that her statements in court show hints of philosophical and rhetorical training and the records of her visions include allusions to classical mythology suggests that she was, indeed, well educated.

Chris Keith, a professor at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, and author of Jesus’ Literacy, told me, “Although their numbers could not equal those of literate men and literate male slaves, literate females were known in early Christianity.” They weren’t just reading, though, some of them were brilliant copyists.

One of the clearest examples of this, he told me, are the female calligraphers who worked for the prolific third century theologian Origen. “These women were not just literate,” said Keith, “but likely some of the most highly trained of the copyists in Origen's scribal workshop. They are mentioned as an aside, but their very presence raises important questions about the roles that otherwise unmentioned females might have played in the production of early Christian literature and manuscripts.”

We also know from a scrap of papyrus found in Egypt (P.Oxy LXIII 4365) that early Christian women were exchanging literature with one another. “In short it is beyond a doubt that at least some the minority of literate early Christians were female.”

A key element in this conversation is social status. When we talk about literacy, we almost always assume that only high-status wealthy Romans could read or write. But that picture is complicated by the fact that elite Romans rarely did their own paperwork. Instead they outsourced and depended upon the labor of literate slaves—whom they sometimes paid to educate themselves for this purpose—who worked as secretaries, copyists, notaries and lectors (or “readers”). Most of elite "writing" and "reading" was actually performed by slaves who took dictation, edited documents, and read aloud to their owners. This means that elite Roman women who did not have the skills necessary to write a letter themselves, even if they had received what Rafaella Cribbiore has called as an elementary education in basic literacy and numeracy, were able to "read" texts and use literate slaves to compose their own letters. The use of literate slaves doesn’t mean that their owners couldn’t read or write, but rather that they often chose not to. Moreover, they might have been the only way a person could continue to remain politically and socially engaged. Today, we have reading glasses, but for most people over the age 45, a lector would have been a necessity.

Additionally, some of these literate slaves were actually women. For elite women, a female slave was a more appropriate companion. Joseph Howley, as associate professor of classics at Columbia University, who has published extensively on slavery and ancient literary production, told The Daily Beast, “Often these enslaved readers were men, but funerary inscriptions from Rome also attest the prevalence of enslaved women who served as specially trained readers for aristocratic Roman men and women. These enslaved women … have traditionally been relegated to the literal footnotes of histories of Roman elite literacy. When our evidence shows us an enslaved woman reading out loud to the elite woman who owns her, we must think carefully about which of these women is engaged in “reading,” which of them we would call “literate,” and why.” Robyn Walsh, of the University of Miami, agreed and told me “The educated elite may in fact have been a target for this kind of enslavement in the aftermath of war as prisoners from Roman imperial campaigns were known to populate the households of the military and aristocratic victors.”

What McDonald’s new analysis reveals is important inasmuch as it shows that women’s education was taking place, in a roughly systematic way, much earlier than previously thought. Literate women might be hidden from sight in our ancient history books, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t read them.

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