Fifty years ago historians’ knowledge of women in the ancient world came from tiny bits and pieces scattered about. Such remnants included fragments of Sappho’s poetry, barely preserved in damaged papyrus full of gaps.
Plutarch provides an engaging account of Cleopatra’s hold on Mark Antony, but he says nothing of her maritime knowledge or her ability to rule, and this year Stacy Schiff debunked his suicide-by-asp-bite myth. (Schiff calculated how much venom it would have taken to actually kill Cleopatra and her two servants.) So, entertaining as Plutarch’s account may be, our knowledge suggests he had a rhetorical agenda.
We’ve studied urns featuring scenes from the legends of Dido and Lucretia and of Artemis killing the children of Niobe. Yet how people might have used the urns in everyday or even ceremonial use has been both unknown and unexplored.
The author of an article for Greece and Rome in 1942 observed that the history of the Julio-Claudian house was remarkable for the frequency with which the continuance of the line depended on a woman. The journal writer noted, however, that, “Though the facts are well known, [women] have been too often neglected or minimized by historians.”
Twenty more years would pass before such neglect was rectified with the 1962 publication of Roman Women: Their History and Habits by J. P. V. D. Balsdon. Rather than focusing only on great women, he attempted at least a passing look at the lives of ordinary women, broadening the scope to include harlots, mothers, wives, and divorcees along with their religious beliefs, daily lives, cosmetics, jewelry, and hair styles. Yet Balsdon too had little to go on. Even by the 1960s, the visual, archaeological, and written evidence about women had remained largely uncollected and uninterpreted.
Fast forward to today. Recently I received this message from a woman I don’t know: “I have a hard time with some denominations who believe that women should wear head coverings and be silent in church. To say a woman can’t speak at all in church is a very, very disheartening concept, at least to me, because I love the Word of God and want to fellowship with other Christian brothers and sisters, not sit there and feel like a nobody, you know?”
Sad, isn’t it?
I find it puzzling that people have silenced women by using the same passage in which Paul linked head coverings with a woman’s (probably a wife’s) freedom to speak and pray in church. One of the things I wrote in my reply is that first-century wives probably did not wear veils when the assembly gathered. By “covering” I think Paul meant hair pinned up. The first-century wife in the Roman Empire wore her hair up, often with a headband circling her forehead. And my working theory is that wearing her hair down was not necessarily seductive, but it did say, “I’m available,” comparable with removing a wedding ring today.
Two things worth noting in 1 Corinthians 11 are that much of the passage is also devoted to issues relating to men’s hair, and that the words “honor,” “glory,” “dishonor,” and “shame,” show up repeatedly. Men and women leading in worship brought shame by what their hair suggested. (Paul does not concern himself with the behavior of visitors or unbelievers.)
I just returned from Pompeii where I photographed statues and frescoes of women, with special focus on hair styles and head coverings. Pompeii is a great site for learning about first-century life because so much of the everyday was frozen in time when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried the city for 1,500 years. Unlike Rome with its high concentration of the elite, Pompeii was full of middle- and lower-class people, so their art and sculptures reveal much about everyday women, wives, slaves, and prostitutes. Interestingly, the brothel art there does not appear to depict prostitutes as having shaved heads. I suspect shaving was reserved for the adulteress.
Fifty years after the first book on ancient women was released, we have much more information available from first-century frescoes, sculptures, coins, and pottery. At the same time we have electronic access, making these findings far more accessible to a greater number of people.
And here’s the greatest part: some of the findings have the potential to loosen a thousand tongues of women ready to sing their great Redeemer’s praise.