Women Doing Ancient History: A Best Of 2019

Women Doing Ancient History: A Best Of 2019

by Katherine Blouin

As the year comes to an end, a series of events led me to reflect on what it means to be a woman who does ancient history. I should from the start acknowledge that I am privileged in many ways: I am a white, cis, able-bodied woman; I was mentored throughout my studies and career by many bright, strong, inspiring female (and male) scholars; I never experienced harrassment in the context of academia; I now have a tenured position in a research university.

Yet as years go by, I find myself more and more aware of how the work of female scholars (like that of bipoc and lgbtq2 scholars) tends to remain less visible, and therefore less valued, than that of male colleagues. This manifests itself and impacts the field in all sorts of ways, from the still structural sexist nature of academia as a whole (which explains the ‘leaking pipeline‘ phenomenon), to the poor representations of female Classicists in Wikipedia, to the still mostly male (and white) lineup of editors and contributors to handbooks, companions and the likes, to the lack of ‘big books’ written by female Classicists, to the still too frequent instances of manels (for antidotes, see the WCC UK’s “How To Avoid A Manel And Beyond: Some Guidance For Classicists On Increasing Diversity In The Profession” document). The result has been, in my experience, an enduring imbalance between male and female faculty and graduate students in ancient Greek and (especially) Roman history.

Of the ten full time faculty ancient historians in the department of Classics at the University of Toronto, three of us are female. My two female colleagues were hired several years after me. When I was hired, one senior female historian was in the department. After she retired, and until my two female colleagues were hired, I was the only female ancient historian in the department, which is the largest in Canada, and one of the largest in North America. This is when my gender came to the forefront of my positionality in a more acute way than it had ever before. For several years, I was routinely the only female faculty attending ancient history seminars and talks. When the very few female graduate students in ancient history enrolled in our program did not make it to events, I was the only female in the audience. I also got to teach a graduate seminar to an entirely male group, and I still have to be in a departmental supervisory committee where I’m not the only female in the room. These experiences generally surprise my colleagues in philology, anthropology, modern history and archaeology, where female scholars and students tend to be better represented. Lastly, until a female colleague pointed the obvious to us last fall, none of us who were there when our graduate reading list in ancient history was put together had noticed that apart from a handful of co-authored pieces, all the 51 titles in it were written by male historians. How could this happen without none of us flagging this issue for several years? For there are many female ancient historians doing fantastic work and I don’t know anyone who would argue to the contrary. How, then, can we better showcase their work?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to blame my department or anyone in particular. My male colleagues, several of whom are friends, have always been supportive, and they never made me feel out of place, on the contrary. Compared to many female (and bipoc and lgbtq2) colleagues, I feel lucky. What I want to underline is that in many ways, the historically-rooted, chronic and systemic imbalance of the field is a self-referential, self-(re)producing mechanism that won’t change unless it is disrupted from within. Thus since the Fall 2018, my department has formed a working group on diversity and equity, and our graduate students are also having conversations on these issues. Awareness is a first step, and we are now actively working towards making our department more inclusive. This will include, I very much hope so, a complete revamp, and update, of the ancient history reading list.

It is with these questions in mind that shortly after Christmas, and as “best of 2019” lists started popping up on social media, I asked the following question to a few friends, and also posted it on twitter and facebook:

What’s the point in leaving men out? And what’s the point of asking this question on social media? Let me answer this question by quoting Beyoncé:

“If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.”

Intersectionality is key, so as I’ve advocated elsewhere in this blog (see notably here, here, here and here), we must also bear in mind colleagues who identify as members of other traditionally marginalized groups. Me asking a question that puts the spotlight on female ancient historians was a way to celebrate a particular group of the many new(er) seats at the ancient history table. It doesn’t mean that the seats that have been there forever are discarded, or that there is no space left for anyone else. It just means that I point to one of many new(er) seats (see on the matter Victoria Leonard’s Dec. 30 thread in reaction to this post). As Lee Maracle once told me, adding ingredients to a salad doesn’t imply that you toss the lettuce leaves in the garbage. It means you add on more taste to it.

So what female-written reads did colleagues, students, and ancient history enthusiasts love this year? Here is the list of all of the suggestions I’ve received (in alphabetical order of contributors):

@antiquidice:Isis im römischen Reich by Svenja Nagel. In-depth study on Isis in the Roman empire in two volumes. Starting with Graeco-Roman Egypt.”

Marie-Lys Arnette: “Sans hésiter les deux magnifiques volumes de ce remarquable ouvrage (Religion et alimentation on Égypte et Orient anciens), à l’image de son éditrice, dont la beauté n’égale que l’intelligence.” 😉

Tara Atkinson: “Emma Southon’s Agrippina. Hilarious and enlightening.”

Sarah Bond: “My vote for fav. monograph is Hannah Platts’ Multisensory Living in Ancient Rome: Power & Space in Roman Houses and my favorite article was in @eidolon_journal by @monicaMedHist on the Justinianic plague (among many other things!).”

Louis Brousseau:The Coinage of Akragas by Ulla Westermark. Paru en 2018, lu en 2019, ça compte?” Of course!

Bill Caraher: “Lynn Meskell’s A Future in Ruins and Christina Luke’s A Pearl in Peril… I know, I know both OUP books (it’s me, not you), but, despite that, they’re good. Also Caitlin DeSilvey’s Curated Decay. Oh also @KatherineRCook’s “EmboDIYing Disruption: Queer, Feminist and Inclusive Digital Archaeologies” from the 2019 EJA.”

Maria Christidis: “Anja Ulbrich’s “Near Eastern and Egyptian iconography for the anthropomorphic representation of female deities in Cypriote Iron Age sanctuaries”.”

Boris Chrubasik: “no question: Kathryn Stevens’ Between Greece and Babylonia.”

Jenny Cromwell: The Brothel of Pompeii by Sarah Levin-Richardson; Ada Nifosi’s Becoming a Woman and Mother in Greco-Roman Egypt. Women’s Bodies, Society and Domestic Space; and popular, late 2018 but paperback out in a few months: Sabine R. Huebner’s Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament.”

David J. DeVore: “Not strictly in ancient history, but I just finished Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era, which has reoriented my understanding of the discipline. Equally excellent, In Search of the Phoenicians by @josephinequinn crystallized my skepticism of a “Greek miracle” and motivated me to transform the narrow “Greek History” survey into “Mediterranean History, 800 to 146.”

Chris Doyle: “Victoria Leonard @tigerlilyrocksGalla Placidia as ‘Human Gold’: Consent and Autonomy in the Early Fifth Century West’, Gender and History, Volume 31, Issue 2, 2019.”

Leo James Elliot:Circe by Madeline Miller was Classical tales the way they should be. All just magic!”

Jane Draycott:@amayor’s Gods and Robots.”

Miko Flohr: “I discovered the work of Astrid van Oyen this year and it made me a better scholar (I hope).”

Rebecca Futo Kennedy: “My addition to the reading list would be Helen Roche’s volume on Greece, Rome and fascism. And I read her book Sparta’s German Children. So good.”

Liz Gloyn: “Please tell me you’ve discovered the online Companion to the Worlds of Roman Women? https://feminaeromanae.org Loads of extra texts, continually being added to, plus extra resources, projects and lots more!”

Charlotta Hilli:SPQR by @wmarybeard. Visited Rome in October and I reread parts of the book then to understand the city better.”

Andrew Kenrick: “It’s a tie between @DaisyfDunn’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius and @NuclearTeeth’s Agrippina, which was last year but I finished reading this year. Bonus shout out to @RebeccaStott64’s piece about exploring post-Roman London in @HinterlandNF issue 1.”

@LittleBitsHist:Istanbul by Bettany Hughes.”

Hikmet Loe:@Eleanor_Robson’s amazing Ancient Knowledge Networks, found just when I was researching information sharing btwn Babylon and Ancient Greece.”

Helen Lovatt:@lilywilli Brides, Mourners, Bacchae.”

Sharon Love:Brotherhood of Kings by Dr Amanda H Podany @ahpod about diplomatic relations between rulers in the ancient Near East. Impacted my choice of research topic and very well-written! #history#ancient.”

Eve MacDonald: “Jodi Magness – Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth.”

Naoise Mac Sweeney: “LOTS TO GREAT STUFF! Carrie Vout’s Classical Art: A Life History. Elena Isayev’s edited volume Displacement and the Humanities. Francesca Scirioni’s The Best of the Grammarians. And I LOVE @ae_stallings new translation of the Works and Days!”

Elizabeth Marlowe: “I am currently having my mind blown by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism.”

Lindsay Mazurek: “Caitie Barrett’s Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeiian Gardens is really fantastic and thought-provoking!”

@Metmarfil: Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, not ancient but very interesting.”

Sarah Murray: “In terms of scholarship by badass ladies, my absolute favorite thing I read this year was Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. It’s not exactly in our field of course, but it is an amazing book and I think everyone should read it. From archaeology/ancient history, there’s an excellent paper by my friend Maeve McHugh on the experience of ancient agricultural work: “To reap a rich harvest: experiencing agricultural labour in ancient Greece” in World Archaeology. Another really interesting read is Laerke Recht’s Animals as Social Actors: Cases of Equid Resistance in the Ancient Near East. Quite good on reading women’s mobility and skill at crafting from the archaeological record of loom weights is (sadly posthumous) J. Cutler’s Arachne’s web: Women, Weaving, and Networks of Knowledge in the Bronze Age Southern Aegean. Not so much ancient history, but as a secret Homer/literature fan and avid traveler I really enjoyed reading Carol Daugherty’s book Travel and Home in Homer’s Odyssey and Contemporary Literature. Technically from 2018 but I read it this year is Rose MacLean’s awesome book Freed Slaves and Roman Imperial Culture: Social Integration and the Transformation of Values. And not a publication, but everything that Florence Gaignerot-Driessen is finding at the site of Anavlochos on Crete is SUPER cool.”

Dimitri Nakassis: “I can’t seem to remember much that I’ve read but off the top of my head, @nmacsweeney‘s Troy: Myth, City, Icon (2018) was great; more technical but no less wonderful was Artemis Karnava’s Seals, Sealings and Seal Impressions from Akrotiri in Thera (2018).”

@noluckst2: “Lucy Shipley’s Etruscans book was a delight. Accessible to all and sheds some much needed light on otherwise obscure aspects of Etruscan life and architecture.”

Hannah Pethen: Silence of the Girls – ok it’s not exactly ‘history’s but I’d like to see #BorisJohnson recite the first few lines!”

Susan Rahyab: “Sharon Herbert’s “The Hellenistic Archives from Tel Kedesh and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris”! Amazed by her work on seals and sealing practices.”

Teresa Raczek: “Not ancient and not necessarily “history,” but Zora Neal Hurston’s ethnographic Baracoon brilliantly captures a historic era.”

Anne-Claire Salmas: “I would like to add to this post the amazing Elizabeth Frood!”

Matt Simonton: “I got a lot out of Kathryn Morgan’s book on Pindar and kingship, finally (very late) read E. Eidinow on oracles and curses, @kataplexis‘ book on immigrant women (thank you Blegen), also @OpusMixtum was kind enough to lend me her dissertation on Crete in Polybius.”

Claire Somaglino: “I’d like to add the last book published by @chloeragazzoli, about Egyptian scribes. Definitely worth being on your list!”

Diana Spencer: “It might not count as it’s not yet published, but I’ve had a sneak preview of @profyarrow’s The Roman Republic to 49 BCE: Using Coins as Sources (2020) @CUPAcademic and it’s a game-changer for iconography/text and numismatics. Can’t wait to own a copy.”

Gregory Stringer:“This year I have been very intentionally using The Worlds of Roman Women – a Latin Reader by Ann Raia, Cecelia Luschnig, and Judith Lynn Sebesta in order to try and make my high school Latin curriculum more inclusive.”

Angela Trentacoste: “2018 but I read it on the beach this summer – Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon. Great read, fun book.”

Katie Turner: “Not strictly ancient history (being a work on Reception), but I loved The Salome Project: Salome and her Afterlives by Gail P Streete.”

Lewis Webb: “Three: Le custodi del potere: Donne e politica alla fine della repubblica Romana (2019) by Francesca Rohr (Venice), a forthcoming chapter on posthuman approaches to plants by @LisaLodwick (Oxford), and a forthcoming chapter on Roman women by Kathryn Welch (Sydney).”

Marine Yoyotte: “I will add also (even if 2018) the work of Agnès Garcia Ventura on gender in ancient Near East.”


Most suggestions above are of books. Although the following won’t come as a surprise, it is still worth mulling over: While a considerable amount of high quality scholarship is published in other shape (edited volumes, articles, public-facing scholarship), the field as a whole remains one that fetishizes monographs. How does that intersect with gender politics in (and outside of) academia? This is a real, open question.

As a way to open up further the discussion, let me end this post with a shout out to kickass, female scholars whose achievements – not only on paper, but also in the field, viva voce at conferences and in the open, and within and beyond the realm of ancient history – have inspired me in 2019:

Favourite female reads of the year (all categories mixed up, cause that’s how I read): Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Lee Maracle’s My Conversations with Canadians and Memory Serves; Madeline Miller’s Circe; Jennifer L. Derr’s The Lived Nile; Ali Smith’s novels (I read 5 of them in a row so guess how much I love her); everything written by Roberta Mazza; Joe Quinn’s “After San Diego. Reflections in Racism in Classics“; Victoria Leonard’s “How Can Historians Achieve Inclusivity in Digital Archives?”; Tanya Talaga’s All our Relations; Mathura Umachandran’s “More Than a Common Tongue: Dividing Race and Classics Across the Atlantic“; Jody Cundy‘s “Tragic Kallion: Pausanias’ account of lethal martial rape and gendered historiography,” forthcoming in Classical Antiquity; everything by Roxane Gay; Nandini Pandey’s “Not Bringing Home a Baby: On Academic Infertility and Miscarried Hope“; The Great Oasis of Egypt, which is co-edited by Roger Bagnall and Gaëlle Tallet, features 11 (out of 16) chapters (co-)written by female scholars.

Publications that came out in 2018 and 2019 and that I cannot wait to read: Liz Gloyn’s Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture; Johanna Hanink’s How to Think About War? An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy; Jennifer baird and Zena Kamash’s “Remembering Roman Syria : valuing Tadmor-Palmyra, from ‘discovery’ to destruction“; Priamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent; Nathalie Lacoste’s Waters of the Exodus: Jewish Experiences with Water in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt; Louise Blanke’s An Archaeology of Egyptian Monasticism. Settlement, Economy and Daily Life at the White Monastery Federation; L’Égypte pharaonique: histoire, société, culture by Paris IV Sorbonne’s Fab Fours of Egyptology: Frédéric Payraudeau, Chloé Ragazzoli, Claire Somaglino and Pierre Tallet.

Upcoming books I look forward to: Clara Bosak’s Schroeder’s Other Natures Environmental Encounters with Ancient Greek Ethnography; Kara Cooney’s When Women Ruled the World. Six Egyptian Queens; Micaela Langellotti’s Village Life in Roman Egypt. Tebtunis in the First Century AD.

Some female-led excavations I follow with great interest: Taposiris Magna and Plinthine, led by Bérangère Redon (who took over from Marie-Françoise Boussac); Tell el Dab’a (see here and here) and Kom Ombo, both led by Irene Forstner-Müller; Ayn Soukhna, now co-led by Mahmoud Abd el-Raziq and Claire Somaglino; everything the CEAlex (Marie-Dominique Nenna dir.) does; Sarah Murray’s female-directed project in Porto Rafti; Carrie Atkins-Fulton’s underwater work at Maroni-Tsaroukkas; Marine Yoyotte’s team work in Gurob.

Female-(co-)led projects (incl. blogs) I admire: Eidolon, WCCWiki editathon, Museum Detox, Papyrus Stories, Classics and Social Justice, Eos Africana, SCS blog, Exchange: Journal of Literary Translation (see also Adrienne K.H. Rose’s post on the subject); Classics at the Intersections; Follow the Pots; the Endless Knot; Faces and Voices; Western Delta Regional Survey, Feminist Historians Collective.

Some female scholars of the ancient world who rocked it this year: Shelley Haley was elected President of the SCS and Alison Futrell the SCS’ Vice President for Communications and Outreach; Noha Salem, who is since 2018 the Director of Ain Shams University’s Centre of Papyrological Studies, became the first Egyptian papyrologist to be elected a member of the Association Internationale des Papyrologues’ committee; Fayza Haikal was honoured “by the Egypt Exploration Society and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities for her illustrious career in Egyptology”; Joe Quinn’s In Search for the Phoenicians and Francesca Schironi’s The Best of the Grammarians: Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad both won the SCS’s Charles J. Goodwin Order of Merit; Donna Yates, who was awarded a 1.5 million euros European Research Council Starting Grant for her project “Trafficking transformations: objects as agents in transnational criminal networks” in late 2018, took on a position in Maastricht University – and thus moved the project’s centre there – in the context of Brexit; Anne-Claire Salmas, who was until recently director of the Griffith Institute’s TopBib and OEB, is about to start as Assistant Professor in Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, where she has the honour of succeeding to Fayza Haikal; Sailakshmi Ramgopal was appointed Assistant Professor in Roman History at Columbia University.

Female ancient historians who gave great talks: The “Race Work in Classics” workshop I attended in the winter 2019, which was organized by Clara Bosak-Schroeder and featured an all-female speakers lineup, was one of the most fulfilling academic events I’ve ever attended. I still remember compelling, powerful, and masterfully-delivered talks by Judith Bunbury, Elizabeth Fentress, Monica Hanna, Sabine Huebner, Katie Kearns, AnneMarie Luijendijk, Rachel Mairs, Myrto Malouta, Franziska Naether and Catherine Pratt.


To all the female historians whose work is listed above, and to all of those who have shared their favorites, a huge thank you! Now let’s all share the joy by making sure our research (and personal) libraries, syllabi, and reading lists are as up to date as possible.

Here’s a Rihanna gif for the year to come. May it feature an ever growing, and louder, number of female and intersectionally diverse ancient historians’ voices!

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