Women in Ancient Greek & Roman Art
The Ancient Greeks and Romans left a wealth of history, culture, and art that still captivates scholars to this day.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans left a wealth of history, culture, and art that still captivates scholars to this day. The art of the Ancient Greeks became the building blocks of Rome’s own artistic ventures, including the repurposing of Greek gods into Roman ones, or copies of Greek sculptures that only survive because Roman artists replicated them. A major subject of Ancient art was, of course, people and with that the portrayal of women. When conjuring images of women in Greek and Roman art, the first thought may go to the goddesses; Athena, also known as Minerva to the Romans, or Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks). Goddesses were portrayed in abundance in the Ancient world, appearing in statues, mosaics, frescoes, carved friezes, or entire temples dedicated to them. However, it is important to remember that when discussing depictions of women in Greece and Rome, the goddesses were not the only players in this field. Real women, from nobility to weavers, appear throughout the artistic record too.
Art is an incredibly useful source to learn about these women, especially when written sources are scant or what survives is not always the full picture (Schlossman & York, 1976). We know, for example, that not only did Greek women appear frequently in art and use objects that depicted women, but they also sponsored and commissioned it (Ridgway, 1987). It is easy for these women to be overshadowed by the divinities of their society, but it is not so difficult to find them in Ancient art if one looks just slightly over from Athena in center frame. Of course, both realms are important to discuss and this essay will do so in tandem, looking to the sources that show both the glorious and the simple, highlighting each other their importance to the societies from which they came.
The civilization of Ancient Greece existed from 12th to 5th centuries BCE consisting of several city states both on the mainland and in the islands of the Aegean. The area was vast and art was found throughout varying in medium, style, and context. As aforementioned, temples provide a wealth of art showing Greek goddesses. The artistic programme of a temple was made to show the power, influence, and realm over which a goddess looked over. They would be filled with carved friezes and sculptures all vividly painted or embellished with gold and other precious materials. The Acropolis in Athens offers a wealth of visual sources for the goddesses Athena and several others. For example, the goddesses of victory, Nike, can be seen fixing her sandal; a small and simple gesture from a goddess whose iconography usually portrays her as an imposing force with large open wings. To show homage to Athena, an enormous chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of her once stood inside the Parthenon itself.
Korai, a common statue type of women, played an important role in the Greek religious sphere. Hundreds of them have been found on the Acropolis and other temples. Their exact identities and purpose are not known to scholars. The women could have represented anyone; a wealthy woman who donated the statue, a priestess, servants of the goddess, or simply generic figures to adorn the temple (Bulger, 2011). They were brightly painted, well-dressed, and their hair intricately done, suggesting their value both visually and metaphorically to the temple and its rituals. These figures occasionally acted as grave markers too, however because of their formulaic form, only inscriptions on the base can identify for whom the kore was made (Bulger, 2011). Other images of women in religious circles include those of the maenads, female followers of the cult of Dionysus.
There are also less ostentatious representations of Greek women that are equally important to point out. A small terracotta sculpture of women grinding wheat to make flour shows the daily tasks regular, non-elite women undertook every day to make bread to feed their families or to sell. Domestic scenes were often portrayed on personal items like terracotta perfume flasks such as these two women passing a mirror between them. Other personal items like mirrors would be adorned with female heads, often with the goddess of beauty, health, and childbirth (Ridgway, 1987). Pottery is an excellent source of Greek art where one can see both goddesses and heroes alongside normal women mixing wine, weaving cloth, or serving someone. Several large and complex examples show the goddess Athena while smaller and simpler works show women with wool baskets, a good juxtaposition to the goddess of weaving and the actual Greek women whose job it was to weave in order to sell cloth and make clothing.
The Roman Empire was another Mediterranean based civilization and at its largest in the 2nd century CE it encompassed the entirety of the Mediterranean basin including North Africa, Greece, Anatolia, the Levant, through Spain, France, and into England. A massive amount of land. Rome had several different political eras; the Kingdom of Rome, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and later in the Medieval period the Holy Roman Empire. In theory, the history of Rome began in the 8th century BCE with the first Roman king and lasted until 1453 CE when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople. This essay only addresses Ancient Rome, roughly the 3rd century BCE (the Republic) until 476 CE with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Art was an important cultural facet to the Romans, from triumphal arcs to private works in villas, it was everywhere, and women appeared also with great frequency, and not just as goddesses. Friezes from a sarcophagi show a wedding scene; a man, woman, and Eros or Cupid underneath them as they make their vow. Another dedicatory marble panel shows a goddess looking over a mother, her baby, and a nurse, the panel was most likely carved to ask the goddesses for health for the mother and baby. Painting is a good medium where it is possible to see more personal portraiture. One painting from a villa in Italy shows a seated woman with a musical instrument and a girl standing behind her. Both are finely dressed and bedecked with jewelry meaning they were not just performing musicians, but rather members of the nobility. It is suggested that the painting shows a Macedonian queen or princess with her daughter or sister. Another painting from the same villa shows a couple, a woman sitting with her head leaned against her hand while a man, presumably her husband, sits beside her. Roman stele, ornate tombstones, offer portraits of wealthy women too, often showing them reclining and contemplative or attended to by relatives and servants.
Another popular way of decorating homes was with mosaics, small pieces of stone or glass laid down to form an image. Allegorical figures which represented concepts like the seasons, victory, or wealth were frequently depicted as women, such as this image of a woman dressed in wreaths of flowers, she could represent abundance, Spring, or good life. Of course goddesses and other mythical women were not lacking in Roman art. The Amazons, a group of female warriors that appear in Greek stories, were a popular choice for artists. This sculpture shows a wounded Amazon that is thought to come from a temple of Diana (or Artemis for the Greeks), the goddess of the hunt and the wilderness. A bronze bust of Diana shows her armed with her quiver and this one of Minerva dresses her with a Greek style helmet, both one of her icons but also hearkens to Minerva’s Greek counterpart of origin, Athena.
Public art was greatly important in Rome for purposes of propaganda and worship. The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, is a monumental work of relief sculpture dedicated to the goddess of peace and contains several registers of images (Becker, 2020). The bottom most level shows scenes of agricultural work and nature and the middle register has a procession of Roman statesmen, attendants, priests, and members of the imperial household like the emperor's family (Becker, 2020). In these throngs of people are several high status women, either wives or mothers of statesmen or the emperor Augustus. One scholar identifies these women as the empress Livia (Augustus’ wife), Antonia Minor (the emperor’s niece), and even a Germanic queen (Rehak, 2004). Imperial women also appeared on coinage, like this gold aureus with the profile of Faustina the wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius, during their husband or son’s reigns. This put their visage even into the pockets of Roman citizens.
This essay has demonstrated the numerous mediums, contexts, and types of women that are seen in Ancient Greek and Roman art. Women played integral roles in Ancient societies and contributed economically as queens, goddesses, priestesses, weavers, baker, nurses, musicians, and more. This is not just seen in the art of the Greeks and Romans, but other Ancient cultures like the Babylonians, Hittites, Celts, and Germanic tribes that included women in their art set within their own cultural nuances.
Becker, A. Jeffery. (2020, October 4). "Ara Pacis Augustae." Smarthistory. Retrieved from https://smarthistory.org/ara-pacis/.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, April 18). Ara Pacis. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ara-Pacis.
Bulger, Monica. (2021, May 11). "Kouroi and Korai, an introduction." Smarthistory. Retrieved from https://smarthistory.org/kouroi-korai/.
Ridgway, B. S. (1987). Ancient Greek Women and Art: The Material Evidence. American Journal of Archaeology, 91(3), 399–409.
Rehak, Paul. (2004). Women and Children on the Ara Pacis Augustae.
Schlossman, B.L., & York, H.J. (1976). Women in Ancient Art. Art Journal, 35, 345-351.